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

 

UPDATED MONDAYS

Updated: April 22, 2021

NOTE: Due to some new equipment issues there maybe some typos involved and the archival sidebar that hopefully should be corrected in the next few months. So incredibly sorry for any inconvenience and thank you for your patience and support. It is truly appreciated! - JB

NOTE: Effective June 8, 2020; due to the current COVID-19 outbreak affecting the arts scene around the Metropolitan Toronto area -- and worldwide -- this blog will go on a (bi)monthly trial rotation until conditions warrant otherwise. Sorry for any inconvenience. Thank you for your understanding, patience and hope to be up and fully running again on a weekly basis in the foreseeable future. Stay safe and take care out there. Your support is truly appreciated! - JB

NEXT EDITION: May 3 (pending)

EDITION #268 - MARCH/APRIL 2021 (Posted: April 22, 2021)

Razor-sharp sib rivalry series evenly balanced

The Sisters #7: Lucky Brat

by Christophe Cazenove and William Maury; translated from French by Nanette McGuinness

92 pp; Papercutz/Macmillian/Raincoast Books

Hardcover, $12.99

Graphic Novel and Comics/Children's Literature

Book Review

Sibling rivalry has its mix of ups and downs and is an easy fodder for any literary genre -- and then there's the popular French graphic novel series The Sisters that takes all of those things to another level of insanity. Now with the seventh English language collection, Lucky Brat , as cobbled from previous original editions Kro D'la Chance! and Jure, Crache, Menti! ; it continues to bring in the relatable humour of sibling love-and-hate relations.

Set in some unnamed provincial town in southern France, Wendy and her younger sister Maureen live with their cartoonist father and homemaker mother that is a constant battle of wits -- and at wit's end -- that shuttles between genuine sisterly love and wanting to kill each other where Maureen doesn't grasp that fact that her big sister is growing up and not liking and doing the same things when they were a bit younger whereas Wendy would rather hang out with her friends than put up with her precocious kid sis and her babyish antics that drive her up the wall, like any regular teenager would.

For Lucky Brat , since it never follows any linear storyline for the most part, it's the hunt for the elusive four-leaf clover and other lucky charms for both girls and the tricks they pull on each other to get them; Maureen going through her fantastical lying phase and inventing a new nonsensical game dubbed Maureenopoly; a little green monster rises in Wendy's eyes whenever boyfriend Mason keeps mentioning her mature and hottie best bud Sammie's name on semi-regular basis of late, including flights of fancy of them as a super-heroine duo to fast-forward and rewinding back as younger children to young adulthood, respectively.

Very loosely based on the experiences of writer Christophe Cazenove's own daughters who also share the same names, this creative team capture those moments of childhood pretty well in these series and the seventh edition is no exception with the razor-sharp artwork and colour of co-writer/artist William Maury, pop culture references and imagery (and there are plenty to go around) and oft-fiery tete-a-tetes that should feel familiar for anyone who has ever grown up with siblings.

Despite the craziness these two characters inflict on each other at times, you can read and feel the closeness Wendy and Maureen have that gets shown in the adult versions of themselves and the childlike mannerisms they never outgrow is one of the charms behind The Sisters that has earned them a sizable following in its native France and a slow yet steady North American fan base over the last few years.

In this era of a global pandemic where familial ties can either bring togetherness and/or chaos, Lucky Brat brings on the laughs with its bubbling and working formula of playful innocence and adolescent turmoil in alliance and contrast that'll be a welcome respite for old fans and new ones in the process.

Hill respectfully bares soul; Zappacosta brings fun grooves

Dan Hill

On The Other Side of Here (Sun+Sky Records/Anthem/Warner Music/ADA)

Producer: Anthony Vanderburgh

Pop

Album Reviews

Legendary pop singer/songsmith Dan Hill bares a lot of soul in On The Other Side of Here , his first studio album in eleven years, containing his no-holds, classic-flavoured trademark sounds going down on this side of easy on messages filled with hope and love that never fails to evoke the emotions they pack on this sixteen-track collection under the even-levelled direction of producer Anthony Vanderburgh.

While the album has its usual slew of pretty love ballads heard on Latin-lite tunes ("Costa Rican Skies", "To Be With You") and emo break-up numbers ("Broken", "Something Like This"), there are more substantial songs here with the title track reflecting on the current tide of social incoherence and COVID-19 on the helplessness and loneliness one can feel these days, yet it provides a comforting assurance and beauty.

Other worthy songs can be heard with the country-tinged "What About Black Lives?" digesting over the BLM Movement and a post-Trumpian America left to assess its culture of police brutality and racial inequity and "Sometimes I Feel" has a bouncy, feel-good retro-1970s kind of vibe, but Hill puts his best moments on when he faces and exorcises past demons over "Forgiveness" into being a better person and "Ninety Years Old," the tribute to his late mother, is guaranteed not to leave one dry-eyed afterwards (go ahead -- I dare you not to) that gets the most respect.

Alfie Zappacosta

Saved (Alma Records/Universal)

Producer: Alfie Zappacosta

Pop/Rock

Having made himself a name on Canadian pop landscape during the mid-1980s to early '90s ("We Should Be Lovers", "When I Fall in Love Again", "Just Simple Words to Say") and a brief stint in musical theatre, Alfie Zappacosta brings about a fun groove with his latest album Saved with its crisp production values preserve his rich timbre voice still strong after all these years.

The light techno-dance "This Place in Time" and sophisticated romance abound "Aurelia's List" are interesting songs to wrap your ears around and even the gospel-funky title track is infectiously listenable. The best bets, however, lies within its jazzy feel heard on "Had Enough" and the West Coast breezy ballad "Unspoken" (and its Spanish version bonus track "De Pensar En Ti") that stand out on this well-done album; plus you can't get any cooler than having noted graphic designer Hugh Syme of Rush fame doing your album cover.

EDITION #267 - FEBRUARY 2021 (Posted: February 22, 2021)

Toxic kindred spirits come to play in ninth BSC book

Baby-Sitters Club #9: Claudia and the New Girl

by Gabriela Epstein; based on the Ann M. Martin novel

165 pp; Graphix/Scholastic Books Canada

Softcover, $16.99

Graphic Novel and Comics/Children's Literature

Book Review

Stepping into the Baby-Sitters Club (BSC ) Graphic Novel Universe, after the eras of Raina Telgemeier and Gale Galligan, is new author Gabriela Epstein bringing aboard a fresh approach with her manga-inspired style over the drawing duties for the next quintet set with the ninth graphic novel, Claudia and the New Girl, (how timely appropriate) where it oversees the importance of friendship and creative passion.

When Ashley Wyeth, a new transfer from Chicago, enters Claudia Kishi's English class at Stoneybrook Middle School, she discovers a kindred spirit in her who also is a young talented artist like herself and they instantaneously click from her cool hippie-era fashion tastes and many ear piercings, multidisciplinary pursuits and on-surface maturity, even so far as Ashley making her see the world in completely different aesthetics she'd never realised existed.

As her artistic horizons expand, this brings things into conflict with her duties as BSC vice-president and her friends who find Ashley as a major distraction as she starts to miss the meetings and avoiding them during lunch period just to hang with her new pal, among other things, that totally annoy them (and whom Ashley thinks they're a waste of precious time). And it doesn't help much when Claudia is pressured to come up with an original sculpture for her Stoneybrook Arts Center art class teacher -- which Ashley also is an attendee -- for an upcoming art exhibit, where she's now forced to decide on what priorities in her life must take precedent.

Epstein, a veteran of illustration and character design in television animation; adapts into the graphic novel series' mould well in its basic adolescent turmoil, humour and drama with her artistry of clean-cut technique and lettering and thickened panelling is unique in her storytelling approach readers will warm up to quickly enough. The story, based on the original 1988 Ann M. Martin novel, touches on toxic relationships, grown-up responsibilities and newfound realizations thoroughly balanced.

Braden Lamb weaves the usual magic colourizing the artwork in eye-popping shades, blends and ranges as in the past eight books in working around the artists' styles. Epstein delivers a winner in her debut outing as the new illustrator for the BSC series with great promise and can't wait what she'll bring in the next three books.

***

Baby-Sitters Little Sister #4: Karen's Kittycat Club, is scheduled for release on July 6, 2021.

Dan Hill's banner year with honours and sounds

Can-Con pop legend rings in 2021 with a Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame induction and new album

Music Feature

Juno- and Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Dan Hill received another hugely meaningful award in his lengthy career early this month as a inductee of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (CSHF), which he was formally inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame's permanent home at the National Music Centre in Calgary back on February 10, featuring interactive exhibits and memorabilia dedicated to Canada's greatest songwriters and songs. During the ceremony, Hill performed some of his defining songs, including his soul-stirring immortal ballad "Sometimes When We Touch," in an exclusive virtual live performance.

"Dan's songs are authentic and intimate, whether he is singing about love or social injustice," said CSHF Executive Director Vanessa Thomas, in the music organization's decision in including Hill into the Hall of Fame for his lifetime achievements. "He may have a soft-spoken voice and sing to soft rock melodies, but his lyrics resonate as loudly and powerfully as if he were shouting it from the mountains. That is the gift that Dan has as an artist and songwriter."

"I am both thrilled and humbled to be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame," Hill responded. "To now be in this esteemed Hall of Fame alongside my songwriting heroes, the writers who were my de facto college education, whom I studied, indeed inhaled, song after song, album after album, is a huge honour for me. I feel enormous gratitude to be recognized, alongside my teachers, [and] my mentors."

Hill also recently completed and released a sixteen-song album, On the Other Side of Here, his first studio album in eleven years; on the Sun and Sky Records label as distributed by Warner Music/ADA. The album features the plaintive, evocative and heartfelt single/lyric video, "What About Black Lives?", previously released last November in his response to the Black Lives Matter movement, which earned him acclaim from fans and critics alike.

EDITION #266 - JANUARY 2021 (Posted: January 25, 2021)

Third BSC Little Sister instalment looks to lift spirits

Baby-Sitters Little Sister #3: Karen's Worst Day

by Katy Farina; based on the Ann M. Martin novel

135 pp; Graphix/Scholastic Books Canada

Softcover, $13.99

Graphic Novel and Comics/Children's Literature

Book Review

For the third adaptation for the younger fandom set of the Baby-Sitters Club series, Baby-Sitters Little Sister #3: Karen’s Worst Day , goes into the ups and downs of the everyday in coping of living in two households with illustrator Katy Farina capturing all the frustrations and hopes for author Ann M. Martin's seven year-old protagonist Karen Brewer with relative ease, tension and humour.

Picking up from Karen's Roller Skates, a run-of-the-mill weekender visit for Karen and her younger brother Andrew to the'ir father and stepfamily and absolutely nothing is going right for her at all: she's still has her arm in a cast and sling from that roller-skating accident in the previous story, she's left her new jeans back at her mother's house, her favourite TV show been pre-empted over a special event, she and her best friend get into a fight -- and that's just for starters.

And no matter how hard she tries, Karen's bad luck works overtime to the point where she gets punished and sent to her room. But when seems all is at its gloomiest, she decides to refocus on how to put things into certain perspectives in life and reverse it into the unexpected and even better tradeoffs, instead of letting the day deliver whatever promises it should hold.

In the time of a major global pandemic, this couldn't be a more than timely book for youngsters (and adults) on learning to make the best out of a bad situation from reading Karen's Worst Day to present the point that everyone has a bad day every now and then and something positive might turn up.

With Farina's penmanship and structure and Braden Lamb on colourer duty complementing each other, this adaptation acts as a learnable parable about the complexities of family, friendship and life as well as providing itself as fun morale booster whenever dark times on personal levels in driving home its basic principle: bad times do not last forever.

***

The latest Baby-Sitters Club graphic novel, Claudia and the New Girl, is scheduled for release on February 2.

Beatles doc shines light on dark classic Let It Be

Noted filmmaker Peter Jackson goes behind the making of the rock masterpiece with Get Back

Film Preview

Two decades ago New Zealander director Peter Jackson came out of cult status to becoming a cinematic heavyweight with his epic trilogy adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit along with producing the first Tintin film. Now he tackles his first-ever documentary project The Beatles: Get Back , as presented by The Walt Disney Studios -- with exclusive worldwide distribution rights -- in association with Apple Corps Ltd. and Jackson's WingNut Films Productions Ltd., in showcasing the warmth, camaraderie and humour of the making of the legendary band's studio album, Let It Be , to hopefully reach cinemas later this summer.

Compiled from over 60 hours of unseen footage and 140 hours of mostly unheard audio recordings from the Let It Be sessions, the documentary is directed and co-produced by Jackson, Clare Olssen (They Shall Not Grow Old) and Jonathan Clyde (the Grammy-winning Ron Howard Beatles touring years documentary Eight Days A Week) with Ken Kamins and Apple Corps' Jeff Jones (also Eight Days A Week) serving as executive producers. The footage has been brilliantly restored by Park Road Post Production of Wellington, New Zealand and is being edited by Jabez Olssen, who collaborated with Jackson on 2018's They Shall Not Grow Old , the groundbreaking film which featured restored and colourized World War I archival footage; and on the smash Star Wars anthology blockbuster Rogue One.

The music in the film will be mixed by Giles Martin, who co-produced and won a 2007 Grammy Award with his late father George Martin on the Cirque du Soleil residency show soundtrack The Beatles LOVE and the 2019 Elton John biopic Rocketman ; and Sam Okell, who worked on the 2019 Beatlesque sleeper hit comedy-fantasy Yesterday ; at the famous Abbey Road Studios in London. With this pristine 4K restoration behind it, Get Back plans to create a vivid, joyful and immersive experience for its audiences.

Get Back is the behind-the-scenes story of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr as they plan their first live show in over two years and charts the writing and rehearsing of 14 new songs, originally intended for release on an accompanying live album. The film features -- for the first time in its entirety -- The Beatles' last live performance as a group, the iconic rooftop concert on London's Savile Row as well as other songs and classic compositions featured on the band’s final two studio albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be.

Although the original Let It Be documentary film, as directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, and the accompanying album were filmed and recorded in January 1969, they were not released until May 1970, three weeks after the band had officially broken up. The response to the film at the time by audiences and critics alike was strongly associated with that announcement. During the fifteen-month gap between the filming of Let It Be and its launch, The Beatles recorded and released their final studio album, Abbey Road, which came out in September 1969. Shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm, the 80-minute Let It Be film (which will also get a re-release) was built around the three weeks of filming, including an edited version of the unforgettable rooftop concert. The Grammy-winning album topped the charts in the U.S. and Britain and also won a 1970 Academy Award for Best Original Song Score.

The film, which was originally planned for a full cinematic release last September but had been set back (no pun intended) due to the current global COVID-19 pandemic; has the full backing of surviving members Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr along with John Lennon and George Harrison's widows, Yoko Ono Lennon and Olivia Harrison, respectively. "I am really happy that Peter has delved into our archives to make a film that shows the truth about The Beatles recording together," said McCartney. "The friendship and love between us comes over and reminds me of what a crazily beautiful time we had."

"I'm really looking forward to this film," Starr enthused, "Peter is great and it was so cool looking at all this footage. There was hours and hours of us just laughing and playing music, not at all like the (original documentary) version that came out. There was a lot of joy and I think Peter will show that. I think this version will be a lot more peace and loving, like we really were."

Academy Award-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson makes his long-awaited documentary film debut The Beatles: Get Back , as presented by The Walt Disney Studios, set for a fall release.

"Working on this project has been a joyous discovery," said Jackson, on doing Get Back. "I've been privileged to be a fly on the wall while the greatest band of all time works, plays and creates masterpieces. I'm thrilled that Disney have stepped up as our distributor. There's no one better to have our movie seen by the greatest number of people."

"No band has had the kind of impact on the world that The Beatles have had, and The Beatles: Get Back is a front-row seat to the inner workings of these genius creators at a seminal moment in music history, with spectacularly restored footage that looks like it was shot yesterday," says Walt Disney Company Executive Chairman Robert A. Iger. "I'm a huge fan myself, so I could not be happier that Disney is able to share Peter Jackson's stunning documentary with global audiences in [the fall]."

***

Watch the five-minute sneak preview here. The Beatles: Get Back is scheduled for release in Canada on August 27.

Streaming samurai rabbits and robots

Netflix teams with comic book legend Stan Sakai on a series based on his comic book, Usagi Yojimbo

Arts Feature

One of the most acclaimed -- and sadly underrated -- continuing comic book series Usagi Yojimbo , will finally get the small screen treatment it deserves with Netflix launching, in the near future; a family-friendly SF CGI-animated comedy/action series Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles.

To the uninitiated: Usagi Yojimbo (meaning Rabbit Bodyguard), was first launched in 1984, following the life and adventures of a wandering ronin (masterless samurai) rabbit Miyamoto Usagi in 17th-century anthropomorphic Japan by Stan Sakai, who cut his teeth in the comics industry by lettering Sergio Aragones' warrior parody series Groo the Wanderer and Stan Lee's Spider-Man Sunday newspaper strips for 25 years.

Master cartoonist Stan Sakai's acclaimed Usagi Yojimbo series will get its own animated series with a science-fiction twist on the Netflix streaming service sometime in the near future.

For close to four decades, Sakai's masterful mix of epic storytelling and artwork of Japanese culture, history, fantasy, sometimes a little horror, a few Western and Asian pop culture references (Star Wars is a huge one) and a plethora of groan-worthy puns, has not only earned a worldwide cult fandom with readers, artists and critics alike, it has also has been published in sixteen languages and won a numerous awards including six Eisner Awards, two Harvey Awards including one for Best Cartoonist, multiple Haxtur Awards from Spain, the Japanese American National Museum's Cultural Ambassador Award, a Parent's Choice Award, an American Library Association Award, a YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) Award; as well has been listed on Empire Magazine's Top 50 Comic Book Characters of All Time, IGN's Top 100 Comic Book Characters of All Time and Rolling Stone 's Top 50 non-superhero graphic novels.

However, it is not the first time Usagi has been animated. Three different versions of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (in 1987, 2003 and 2012) have had crossover episodes which featured the samurai rabbit from an alternate dimension as well as a couple of TMNT-based Usagi Yojimbo action figures have been made, plus TMNT and Usagi have done a couple of non-canonical crossover stories in the comic book realm over the years. There was even a three-minute pilot episode project done in 1994, Space Usagi , also an science-fiction related spinoff that Sakai worked on around at that time which had veteran voiceover actor Jim Cummings voicing a futuristic descendant of Usagi which never got off the ground due to bad timing with the ill-fated series Bucky O'Hare and The Toad Wars series -- remember its god-awful catchphrase: "Let's croak some toads!"? -- and, quite frankly, it was just as poorly animated and conceived (click here to see the results).

And as well as the Space Usagi trilogy, Sakai dabbled into the sci-fi genre again with Usagi on the six-part miniseries Usagi Yojimbo: Senso , a superb remake of the H.G. Wells classic SF-thriller The War of The Worlds , back in 2014.

Samurai Rabbit: The Usagi Chronicles takes place in the far future, set in a world that mixes modern high-tech images with classic Japanese references, that follows the teenaged shugyosha (student warrior) Yuichi, a descendent of Miyamoto Usagi; leading a ragtag team of misfit heroes -- including a roguish bounty hunter, a cunning ninja, an acrobatic pickpocket and a faithful pet lizard -- as he battles depth-charging moles, metal-tipped winged bats and monsters from another dimension on his epic quest to become a true samurai.

Usagi Yojimbo is no stranger to the science-genre, as creator Stan Sakai has placed his ronin rabbit in his SF spinoff series Space Usagi trilogy back in the mid-1990s and in the 2014 H.G. Wells adaptation of The War of The Worlds in Usagi Yojimbo: Senso (featured) that he spent years planning on.

French entertainment company Gaumont Animation, who optioned an animated TV version of Usagi back in 2018; will co-produce the series with Dark Horse Entertainment and director James Wan's Atomic Monster Productions; also behind such films as The Conjuring, Saw and Insidious horror series, the 2018 superhero blockbuster Aquaman and its upcoming 2022 sequel; with the Mumbai-based 88 Pictures to be the CGI animation studio. Candie and Doug Langdale (The Adventures of Puss in Boots; Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness) are attached as executive producers and showrunners, Ben Jones (Batman vs Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; Teen Titans) is supervising producer, Khang Le (Big Hero 6; Little Big Awesome) will act as art director and Sakai himself will serve as executive producer.

"All of us at Gaumont were honoured when Stan trusted us to develop his iconic property into an animated series," stated Nicolas Atlan, president of Gaumont's U.S. division. "This is a first for Usagi Yojimbo. We are thrilled to have Netflix on board as our creative partner so we can together, with the combined artistic talent of Stan Sakai, Dark Horse Entertainment and Atomic Monster, take this iconic brand to the next level."

"It is a pleasure working with Gaumont and Netflix. I am involved in each step of the production and am enthusiastic with the direction we are going into," said Sakai in a statement. "It is wonderful to expand the Usagi universe by collaborating with so many talented people. I am working with an awesome team and I'm looking forward to finally seeing a Usagi series on the screen! I thank my wonderful fans, friends and family for their support and encouragement over the last 35-plus years."

EDITION #265 - NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2020

A sentimental ROM-p through the One Hundred Acre Wood

Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic

Venue: Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queen's Park, Roloff Beny Gallery, Level 4

Dates/Times: Through January 17; Wednesday to Sunday 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Admission: Adults $31, Child () $18, Student/Seniors (65+)/Youth (15-19) $24, Infant (0-3) FREE. Call 416-586-8000 or rom.on.ca

Gallery Review

"I suppose that every one of us hopes secretly for immortality; to leave, I mean, a name behind him which will live forever in this world, whatever he may be doing, himself, in the next."

-A.A. Milne

There are very few that can say they've never been touched, inspired or grew up without the beloved British-created Winnie-the-Pooh that still remains adored by generations of children since its first came out in 1923 in the four volumes of works that has been translated in over thirty languages, including Latin; and is a constant bestseller in children's books for almost a century. The Royal Ontario Museum's Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic exhibit in its only Canadian stop of a world tour from London's Victoria and Albert Museum in its final few weeks is certainly a not-miss.

Opening up with a brief look at Pooh's Canadian origins as the short-lived orphaned black bear mascot for the Canadian Expeditionary Forces during World War I, as bought by Lieutenant Harry Coleburn in White River, Ontario in 1914 and named after his adopted hometown of Winnipeg for $20; and becoming a permanent fixture at the London Zoo for the next 19 years of her life before her death age 20 in 1934. Garnering a load of fans, including one young Christopher Robin Milne, whose own childhood launched a cultural legend by author A.A. Milne and his go-to illustrator, E.H. Shepard.

The exhibit may be a bit sparse in its construct, yet it feels so full as if it allows one's youthful imagination to run wild to fill in the rest in its kid-friendly setting done well before COVID-19 risks shut down some of its physical interactive spots that works for the most part whilst filled with the inspirational photos, letters, toys, memorabilia and, of course, the iconic illustrations that still put the Disneyfied version (more on that later) to shame.

British freelance cartoonist Royston Robinson takes a punny gag at Pooh at the ROM exhibit,Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic

There's even a few unused illustrations that never made it to print, like the one of Christopher Robin and Pooh sitting in a tree hollow based on a real-life garden tree in Cotchford Farm in East Sussex where the Milnes like to spent weekends at; done in pencil, pen and ink and gouache corrections with the most exquisite dedication to detail, pooled from the many nature walks the two creators made in Ashdown Forest, the "home" of the One Hundred Acre Wood universe the characters existed, as well as a couple of watercolour proofs Shepard made for the reprints in the late 1960s to '70s, 20 years after Milne's death.

Other than strolling down memory lane, Winnie-the-Pooh has an unbridled sentimentalism attached to it, perhaps more for the adults than the kids (even one teen visitor was almost brought to tears over it); as a kind of balm for today's pandemic times when things were more simpler and made sense on the stories' themes on friendship, learning, the art of playtime and rediscovery of whimsy innocence in both the artistic and coloured reproductions.

The closing pieces based on the merchandising that spawned from the Pooh phenomenon since the 1930s onward, including some but thankfully limited versions done by the Walt Disney Company -- which, unfortunately, are a little more universally recognizable than the originals -- that made their mark around 1966, 30 years after Disney tried to get the film rights on it; shows its everlasting influence including the satires from Benjamin Hoff's 1982 esoteric allegorical classic The Tao of Pooh to a lesser-known 1978 title Winnie-the-Pooh, Capitalist Lackey? by author/illustrator Simon Colverson to the 2015 Star Wars-inspired James Lance parody, Wookiee the Chew , plus a couple of British political cartoons with Pooh characters commenting on global warming ("Poohsticks 2014") and Brexit ("Woozle Hunt", 2016) that gets a few laughs.

Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic is certainly a treat to savour while it's still at the ROM with the careful COVID restrictions currently in place that doesn't deter nor dampen the joy it brings to the viewers' eyes and hearts.

Crushes with blushes mark eighth BSC graphic novel

The Baby-Sitters Club #8: Logan Likes Mary-Anne!

by Gale Galligan; based on the Ann M. Martin novel

167 pp; Graphix/Scholastic Books Canada

Softcover, $16.99

Graphic Novel and Comics/Children's Literature

Book Review

The Baby-Sitters Club (BSC) book series have proved their longevity for three-and-half decades since their publication back in the mid-1980s not only with their reformatted graphic novel series that earned them few top spots on the YA bestseller lists, but more recently, getting the small-screen treatment again with their own smash-hit Netfilx series that has just been renewed for a second season. For the eighth instalment, Logan Likes Mary-Anne! , it brings out a further development that the girls that make up the reliable babysitting service are growing up in their own fashion.

Picking up where Boy-Crazy Stacey left off, the thread now goes towards the team secretary/sitter Mary-Anne Spier as they head back to school as eighth-graders at Stoneybrook Middle School with new responsibilities added to their already busy teen lives. When her BFF and leader-founder Kristy Thomas comes up a scheme to drum up more clients for BSC unexpectedly brings them an overwhelming load of business for the six-girl crew, they decide to add a few more members.

They look to one potential, Logan Bruno, the newly-transferred hunk from Louisville, Kentucky with some babysitting experience -- who looks like the cinematic teen idol Cam Geary -- causes a slight problem for Mary-Anne: she's developed a full-blown crush on him, and all on the first day. After attending a meeting along with Jessi Ramsey, another recruit as suggested by Junior Officer Mallory Pike; they give him a test assignment with Mary-Anne with a new client's rambunctious young son that puts her heart in a tizzy that gets worst when Logan afterwards asks her out to the first school dance of the year, much to her own surprise.

About to turn thirteen shortly, Mary-Anne tries to navigate all these feelings she's never had before while balancing school, her friends (along with their ribbing about -- and aiding -- her newfound love life) and being the dutiful daughter to her widower father, whose own relationship with other BFF Dawn Schafer's divorcee mother Sharon has currently hit the pause button; along with grappling her own social anxiety issues that could possibly derail things with Logan, and maybe BSC with it.

One of the best aspects of the series as it deals with adolescence and all the turmoil that comes with the territory are not lost here with cartoonist/illustrator Gale Galligan's artwork and Braden Lamb's colourings that gets all the emotional weight with Ann M. Martin's dialogue and pacing that the next generation of readers can relate to, including character developments that gradually grow in time, especially with Richard Spier accepting that Mary-Anne's not a little girl anymore, plus having a couple of newbie members onboard adds to the fun.

The only quibble that might have some latter-day readers scratching their heads is that the Spier household still uses a rotary-dial phone (!). I can understand (and agree with) the very limited absence of cellphones in this series in keeping with the original series' tone, but even I find that a little bit hard to swallow in this day and age.

Logan Likes Mary-Anne! is another humorously winning tale from the BSC series, but it also marks the end of Galligan's run after a successful four-book deal as she hands the pen over to new author Gabriela Epstein taking over the drawing duties for the next quartet set of books that should be well applauded in filling in for illustrator Raina Telgemeier brought to life the first four to the series on the path of its renewed and popular interest.

***

Baby-Sitters Club #9: Claudia and the New Girl, is scheduled for release on February 2, 2021.

Brit cartoon memoir comfortable within its own skin

The Times I Knew I Was Gay

by Eleanor Crewes

319 pp; Scribner/Simon and Schuster Canada

Softcover, $34

Graphic Novel and Comics/Memoir and LGBTQ Issues

Book Review

Birthed out of independently-produced and -distributed ten-page 'zine project, The Times I Knew I Was Gay by British author/illustrator Eleanor Crewes is her memoir of self-discovery as a younger woman trying to come to terms with her own sexuality and artistry collected over time into a funny and honest tome on identity.

Since she was a child brought up in a Catholic household, Crewes knew she was different and loved being that way from showing up in trousers for her first communion to being a bookish fan of goth culture and horror stories, including an obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer 's Willow Rosenberg. But it was her teen years that she struggled with not finding any attraction to males despite having a couple of boyfriends in that period despite a deeper attraction toward women, as well as some body image issues.

It wasn't until her post-secondary years at the University of the Arts London did she finally take the baby steps with the idea of being gay, falling back into a (albeit briefly) hetero relationship, then firmly reclaiming her lesbianism with the aspects of being out of the closet with her family and friends and having her first relationship with a woman does she learn to be more comfortable with herself.

Rendered in graphite pencil, Crewes' artistry have a rich dark texture, yet a soft touch and child-like approach in the subjects addressed here that are universal in the human experience, whether its how to deal with unrequited teenaged crushes to the more-than-awkward experimentations with first-time sex -- although not explicit, but done tastefully -- and post-coital emotions to self-analyse over have their moments.

While it feels a little light in certain areas without having a lot of dramas affiliated in most coming-out stories and not enough about her art career, The Times I Knew I Was Gay is reasonably digestible on Crewes being comfortable in her own skin that makes this worthwhile reading for anyone trying to figure out their own way in life.

EDITION #264 - OCTOBER 2020 (Posted: October 13, 2020)

Outdoor art rebo(u)nds arts complex from COVID complacency

Textile artist Amanda McCavour's colourful Sketch, Sample, Sew installation flutters in the autumn air as part of Harbourfront Centre's current Site Alive programming.

'Toons for our times and installations keep Harbourfront Centre vibrant for the fall

COVID Comics/REBO(U)ND/Sketch, Sample, Sow

Venue: Artport and The Power Plant, Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queen's Quay West

Dates/Times: Through October 25 (REBO(U)ND), 30 minutes after sunset daily until 11 p.m. and December 31 (COVID Comics and Sketch, Sample, Sow); Outdoors, 24/7

Admission/Information: FREE. Call 416-973-4000 or harbourfrontcentre.com

Visual Arts Reviews

On September 22 there was a nationwide unity vigil for the shutdown of the cultural groups and art performance venues, Day of Visibility for the Live Entertainment Industry, from Toronto's Roy Thompson Hall to Montreal's Cirque du Soleil International Headquarters; that lit themselves red to bring attention to their plight and -- temporary as it may be -- paralysis on a artistic and financial level. Yet it is not to say they're throwing in the towel as some places have learned to thrive like streaming live theatre and, if you're like Harbourfront Centre, taking it to the streets with having their own outdoor art displays that should be taken advantage now before the cold really sets in.

COVID Comics by local cartoonist Rebecca Roher, who created them after arriving home from an arts centre residency in France and going into quarantine during the coronavirus' first-wave breakout last March in reflecting of what our world has become literally overnight, including the keywords of 2020 -- social distancing, curbside services and tele-services -- summed up in eight panels at the Queen's Quay Terminal North Kiosk (Queen's Quay West/Bay Street) in colour and black and white with a funny-sad tome.

The colour series take more of a tribute to the frontline workers that keep society going more or less in works "New Normal" of a school custodian roaming the hallways armed with sanitizing materials, PPE and oddly enough, wearing a hazmat suit to point out the absurdity and paranoia of the unknown complexity of COVID-19 and "Healthcare with Heart" with two doctors trying to comfort each other in a quiet moment outside an ER and the helplessness that they and others feel that not everyone can be saved from it, are its starkest pieces while "Good Neighbours" emphasizes public social distancing with a little humour sprinkled and "Touch" between a child making contact with his grandmother through a safety shield as well as humanity that in spite of everything, we haven't fully forgotten to be the social species we are.

The black and white ones take on a bit of a sombre pulse as seen in "Party Mix" of woman shopping for potato chips who then weeps upon seeing a bag marked "party mix" flavour stating the all-too bitter reality of how our previous gatherings have significantly shrunk in these last few months and its sequel on enforced solitudes, "Lonely Women," of her eating lunch with her mirrored counterpart. "Could Serve" expresses the new habit we've adopted (including myself) of how much we're willing to observe the two-metre (six-feet) rule with total strangers, takes on almost a Family Circus -like humour and "Alone Together," where a single woman approaching a couple from afar during a nature walk sums up all our collective thought rhetorically asking them: "Are you guys scared, too?", yet shows commonality and hope we'll all come out of this alive.

On the Power Plant Gallery East Wall (231 Queen's Quay West) has the video projection project REBO(U)ND by Quebecois director/choreographer Caroline Laurin-Beaucage with three other dance companies Montreal Danse, Lorganisme and Hub Studio of a seven-minute video loop of four dancers from these companies seemingly bounce off a trampoline in freefall stances in slow-motion and mid-suspension in fade-ins and -outs on grainy black-and-white film, as edited by cinematographer Kevin Jung-hoo Park; gives a haunting feel of falling into and rising out of nothingness. It's well choreographed in giving the impression of defying gravity, space and time all to the ephemeral soundtrack of Jean Gaudreau. Too bad it can't be extended until Halloween -- it would make a nice touch to any spooky atmospheric gathering down there if it were possible.

And resident Craft and Design Studio textile artist Amanda McCavour's Sketch, Sample, Sew is her ongoing series "Sample Wall" based on test samples and ideas since 2007 of geometric, botany and household objet d’art embroideries as found at the Artport's West Facade courtyard next to the Brigantine Room (235 Queen's Quay West). Her textile experimentations have a festive flair to this peaceful place near the lakeside of its primary and secondary chromatic palette, as accompanied by its outdoor lights; adds a touch of colour fluttering under the night skies and to the surounding autumn canopy.

Dance Class heroines earn some travel points

Dance Class 3-in-1 #2

by Beka and Crip; translated from French by Joe Johnson

142 pp; Papercutz/Macmillian/Raincoast Books

Softcover, $19.50

Graphic Novel and Comics/Children's Literature

Book Review

For those who want a bit further introduction to the hit teen Franco-graphic novel series Dance Class , created by writers Bertrand Escaich and Caroline Rogue (a.k.a. Beka) and artist Crip; a good place would be in the second English-language collection Dance Class 3-in-1 #2 , gathering the previously-released fourth to sixth volumes A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Paris ; To Russia, With Love and A Merry Olde Christmas that centers around the dynamic dance trio Julie, Alia and Lucie getting around Europe and their love for dance, as well as dealing with the ups and down of adolescence.

The first, A Funny Thing Happened... , is the first of a two-part storyline of the girls and their dance school as run by former ballerina Miss Anne in their unnamed French suburb outside of Paris that have a chance to represent the school at the National Competition at the nation's capital in the traditional ballet division. Knowingly being the school's top dancers, the trio overhears their long-time rival Carla's plans to sabotage their efforts so that her group can be the one going the finals that puts things on edge.

Meanwhile two relationships make a change as the foodie-loving Lucie manages to capture the eye of a pretty sincere guy, Elliot, that has its quite awkward beginnings of misunderstandings on comedic levels while having to deal with her competing divorced parents' childish rivalries, meanwhile Julie's relationship with her b-boying boyfriend Tim, as previously established in the second volume Romeos and Juliet , comes to an halt.

To Russia, With Love 's segments has the girls joining up for their high school's swing dance class as a means to meet boys -- a boon for the hopelessly romantic Alia -- that doesn't pan out well for her as a chance to hook-up with a super-cute boy that she tries to dance with whenever the opportunity does (or doesn't) arrive; plus the central story's sequel to A Funny Thing... that has the dance school being sent to St. Petersburg for a dance study program at the prestigious Mariinsky Theatre, home of the Bolshoi Ballet Company, to perform with fellow Russian students for a performance of The Nutcracker.

Upon arrival, it becomes a cavalcade of language and cultural barriers clashing along with Carla looking to get grander role in the ballet and their costumer Nathalia, an ex-pat Russian, looking to fulfill her childhood dream of secretly performing as the Sugar Plum Fairy is made all the real, courtesy of Alia's generosity and Julie's choreography.

Third instalment's major story in A Merry Olde Christmas sends the girls off to London when they not only get an invitation to spend the holidays there with a former Dance School mate Prune, now studying at the Royal Ballet School; but also audition and perform at a West End pantomime's modern version of A Christmas Carol. While getting their parents' permission to go to England is a breeze, it gets harder when they learn Carla is there too to in order to upstage them, along with her British counterpart, Meg.

Probably the series' best set of novels in its decade-long run, the creators bring out a sense of adventure, romance and comedy with the trio's travels and travails (not to mention Julie's kid sister Capucine's overdramatic turns of taking everything literally), it doesn't feel cramped or watered down in Joe Johnson's translations for English readers is top. Although, my only qualms about it are, one; they're described as being Americans as opposed to French (I guess not to alienate American readers that Franco-comic purists might find a bit cringe-worthy, especially when the artwork clearly has a French accent and feel) and two; in Olde Christmas , the discrepancy of the Eurostar train platform at London's St. Pancras International isn't as freely accessible as depicted here (I've ridden on the Eurostar myself, so I'm speaking from experience).

Still, the relatively-accurate classical ballet and modern dance movements are its pleasurable sweet spot; including the teenaged melodramas and humour make it easily forget its shortcomings -- and the stellar colour work by Maela Cosson -- as solidly collected and presented by American comics distributor Papercutz, in an otherwise quite decent series for French comic, dance and travel lovers of all ages.

***

The next English-language graphic novel, Dance Class #11: Dance With Me , is scheduled for release on January 5, 2021.

Analysing a working-class country icon

She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs

by Sarah Smarsh

187 pp; Scribner/Simon and Schuster Canada

Softcover, $30

Non-Fiction/Biography, Gender Issues and Social Studies

Book Review

To say the impact country music icon Dolly Parton has made to her genre and pop culture would be a gross understatement, including her business endeavours, film resume and humanitarian efforts that have reaped her millions in her sixty-odd years of entertaining audiences worldwide. Kansan journalist Sarah Smersh (Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth) delves into Parton's life, career and above all, music in her second book She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs , a thoughtful and personal analytical view on the legend's contribution to female empowerment and independence.

Based on a four-part series for No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music magazine back in 2016, the book is a collection of these articles written at the beginnings of the #MeToo Movement and the height of 2016 American presidential election, when it all seemed that Hillary Clinton was on the cusp of becoming the first duly-elected woman to the Oval Office, only to be dashed and disillusioned by the election of Donald Trump and the misogynistic and shock-politics presidency that followed. Now in the era of COVID-19 and a newly-kindled, if cautious hope of the possibility that Kamala Harris, alongside Joe Biden; will be the first woman and person of colour to take the vice-presidency (as of this writing), about one hundred years since American women were given the right to vote.

Weaving in bits about Parton and her humble, hardscrabble upbringing in post-World War II rural East Tennessee as one of eleven children and her natural-born talent and drive to make it in showbiz, along with Smersh's own family history of her grandmother and mother, both single mothers struggling in a patriarchal and conformist society in eras where women had to -- and continue to -- raising their children and make a living in doing so; the author brings about some interesting patterns in her career that speak out to the working-class women she'd often sing about that don't often make the headlines or academia papers of concern.

Be it her classic hits like "Jolene," about an insecure woman who fears her husband will leave her for another woman he accidentally mentions in his sleep; to "Just Because I'm A Woman," a stinging treatise on sexual double standards on premarital sex, based on her own experience with her husband of sixty years Carl Dean, after they'd been married a few months, Smersh points out the intelligence in her songwriting that go beyond the down-home persona, rhinestones, massive wigs and yes, the more than infamous figure that were the staple of punch lines everywhere during the 1970s and '80s when she became a crossover star onto the pop charts to criticisms from seemingly more liberated women like Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey.

She Come By It Natural also points out her business savvy as always being in control of her music and career, whether it was turning down a chance of Elvis Presley recording her masterpiece tune "I Will Always Love You," due to his manager "Colonel" Tom Parker demanding half of her publishing rights that she flatly refused (and it paid off, too -- not only was it a personal hit for her twice, Whitney Houston had sent it into the stratosphere with her cover of it on the 1992 The Bodyguard soundtrack album, which Parton now ironically jokes: "When [her version] came out, I made enough money to buy Graceland."); launching of her own theme park Dollywood that has been in operation since 1996 in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (not far from where she was born); running her own film/television production company Sandollar Productions that produced the Academy Award-winning 1989 AIDS documentary Stories from The Quilt and hit film remakes of Father of The Bride to Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV show in the 1990s and more recently, a Netflix anthology drama series Heartstrings ; even to an amusing story of how she fired her drummer on her 2016 tour who made suggestions on how to run her own show and replaced him with a drum machine that showed who really calls the shots ("I saved a lot of money. And it don't talk back," the superstar quips to her approving audience with applause).

American country music legend Dolly Parton, behind such hits "9 to 5," "Two Doors Down" and "Coat of Many Colors;" continues to be a cultural and social juggernaut after six decades in showbiz, as acclaimed author/ journalist Sarah Smersh points out in her latest book, She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs.

Smersh reveals a lot of the "9 to 5" singer/songwriter's generosity from providing college scholarships, sponsoring literacy programs and raising funds for Tennessee victims of flood and wildfires, but she also points out a couple of Parton's shortcomings, like the controversy behind one of her business ventures, Dixie Stampede, a Medieval Times-like experience that gives a sanitized version of a Civil War Antebellum South that ignores the ugliness that supported it: African slavery -- after a 2017 critique in Slate Magazine, it made only a cosmetic change in dropping the word "Stampede," but still maintaining its North vs. South theme -- to being a poster woman for plastic surgery to maintain her looks that's more of a vanity point than about body politics.

While the country star has never claimed of being a feminist or even been part of the movement, Smersh provides a good argument here on Parton's pioneering efforts, even if subconsciously; in giving it a backbone and humour about being a highly successful and smart woman in the country music industry that still favours playing country male singers over female on the radio format in this day and age, despite the trailblazing efforts by Parton and others like her; while going against the odds and being a inspiration to all by being herself.

EDITION #263 - SEPTEMBER 2020 (Posted: September 21, 2020)

Rolling Stones exhibit to locally unzip itself

Legendary British rockers' touring exhibit comes to Kitchener venue November 2021

Gallery Preview

Close to sixty years later, the Rolling Stones still continue to be relevant in this day, what with releasing couple of new singles, the COVID-19 tune of our times "Living in A Ghost Town" and the previously-unreleased track "Criss Cross" to commemorate the re-release of their classic 1973 album Goats Head Soup both to critical acclaim in these last few months. Now they've recently announced a southwestern Ontario stop of their smash touring art exhibit, The Rolling Stones: UNZIPPED , at Kitchener's THEMUSEUM (10 King Street West, Kitchener, Ontario), set for next fall.

Located 70 minutes from Toronto, THEMUSEUM is one of the Greater Toronto Golden Horseshoe area's cultural hubs as a new kind of museum that is more about ideas and experiences rather than permanent collections. The team at THEMUSEUM are dedicated to presenting fresh, relevant cultural content from around the globe in unique and interactive ways that intersect art, science and technology and they snapped up the exclusive Canadian premiere of UNZIPPED that is more than just a few bric-a-bracs on loan from the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band's private collection.

UNZIPPED will feature over 929 square-meters (10,000 square-feet) of impressive one-of-a-kind artefacts of more than 300 original objects from the Stones' personal collection. Along with instruments and stage designs, this exhibition includes rare audio fragments, video footage, personal diaries, iconic costumes, posters and album covers. The show features original works on display from an array of artists as diverse as Andy Warhol, Alexander McQueen, Prada, Dior and filmmaker Martin Scorsese; as well as a replica of their recording studio, an immersive realistic reconstruction of their Chelsea flat 'Edith Grove' and culminates in a mind-blowing backstage and 3-D concert experience.

Following successful stops in Europe, the United States and Asia, the newly-refurbished exhibit celebrates the Stones' artistic collaborations in music, art and design, fashion and film. "I am thrilled that we have confirmed not only the Canadian premiere, but the only Canadian stop on the world tour," said David Marskell, CEO of THEMUSEUM. "While we have brought world-class exhibitions from Titanic to Warhol here to Kitchener, this will be [our] largest show to date."

***

The Rolling Stones: UNZIPPED is scheduled to run from November 2, 2021 to January 30, 2022. Advance ticket sales will begin in November 2020 with an exclusive ticket pre-sale for THEMUSEUM Members. For more information, visit themusuem.ca.

A fresh and funny teen Crazy Rich Asians tale

My Summer of Love and Misfortune

by Lindsay Wong

351 pp; Simon Pulse/Simon and Schuster Canada

Softcover, $25.99

Fiction/Teen Fiction

Book Review

China in the news nowadays isn't all too popular of late, what with the current situation of linking COVID-19 to its source of origin from there to the governmental crackdown of Hong Kong's established democratic rights and the plight of the Uyghur minority gaining international condemnation. That's where My Summer of Love and Misfortune , a decent teen fiction debut by Canadian author Lindsay Wong comes in to add a little light teen angst, romantic-comedy and culture clash.

Things have been a perfect storm of troubles for seventeen-year old Iris Wang. The slightly spoiled and self-absorbed only child of her upper middle-class suburbanite immigrant parents in New Jersey, she's completely flunked high school and unable to graduate with the grades she's gotten, let alone get into any post-secondary institution; she's run a huge (and I mean, huge) spending tab on her American Express card and worst of all, she caught her boyfriend of two years making out with her best friend since second grade in her room during a house party that spiralled out of control.

With concern for her future and her life in a daze, her parents pack her off to Beijing to live for awhile with relatives she barely knows. Iris discovers upon arrival, much to her surprise, that her Uncle Dai is a huge hotel construction tycoon with her Aunt Yingfei and same-aged cousin Ruby, all living in a lavish hotel that he owns. And things are off to a tenuous start, starting with Ruby who isn't happy with having her around at all to help her improve her English and the culture shock she's trying to absorb in a country and language she's totally disconnected from, despite her heritage that finds her equally alienating.

Just as things are starting to look up with a handsome university student tutor named Frank Liao hired by her uncle to help her get enough grades to earn a GED and getting an inkling about her ancestral homeland, including a sense of blossoming maturity; Iris accidentally stumbles upon a couple of dark family secrets and another side of China occupied by the have-nots that could bring them all together -- or tear them apart.

The Vancouver-based, award-winning Wong (The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons and My Crazy Chinese Family) brings about a fresh, funny and dramatic dynamic to this adolescent Crazy Rich Asians story that's easily accessible to read, as well as a working treatise on today's youth caught up in heady consumerism, materialism and social media, as the lead character is so heavily deep in initially; while engaged in her own voyage of self-discovery.

My Summer of Love and Misfortune makes for a perfect escapist coming-of-age tale in a far-off place and about familial relationships to this late summer's reading list from a talented author we should be hearing more about in the future.

Tall storyteller Karen rolls it again

Baby-Sitters Little Sister #2: Karen's Roller Skates

by Katy Farina; based on the Ann M. Martin novel

126 pp; Graphix/Scholastic Books Canada

Hardcover, $29.69

Graphic Novel and Comics/Children's Literature

Book Review

The runaway success of the Baby-Sitters Club graphic novel spinoff series featuring Kristy's younger stepsister Karen with last year's Baby-Sitters Little Sister #1: Karen's Witch continues with its second instalment, Karen's Roller Skates , as interpreted by noted illustrator/comic book artist Katy Farina; is just as enjoyable for a new generation of bookish kids that teaches a few life lessons as well.

The highly-energetic and -imaginative Karen Brewer spends another weekend with her father and large stepfamily along with younger brother Andrew and is anxious to try out her new roller skates, including a few daredevil stunts in the process. In what seems like a simple jump over a couple of coffee cans, she slips and breaks her wrist that sends her to the hospital.

After the cast work is completed, she suddenly becomes the center of attention with all the family doting on her condition that doesn't last too long, much to her dismay. When a boy from her school, Ricky, is in the same hospital for a broken leg and seeing he has a slew of autographs on it that becomes a competition between them in who can get the most, including a famous baseball player; on it all before the following Monday morning.

Getting her family and a few local friends around the neighbourhood to sign it (and a couple of pets) is easy enough, its not before long that Karen's active imagination on how she broke her wrist stretches into a taller story with every explanation that slowly borders on the ridiculous to garner more attention -- including a celebrity autograph -- becomes a lot more than she can make people swallow.

Braden Lamb's eye-popping colour job to Farina's penmanship and structure adds quite a punch to the book, in comparison to the somewhat subdued if equally refreshing touch given to the ongoing Baby-Sitters Club series for the tween and younger teen set that have also become bestsellers in recent years; along with a uncomplicated storyline for youngsters to digest and easy reading. What a fun way to end a summer of reading for children.

***

The latest Baby-Sitters Club graphic novel, Baby-Sitters Club #8: Logan Likes Mary-Anne!, is currently in bookstores and online shopping sites and Baby-Sitters Little Sister Graphic Novel #3: Karen's Worst Day is scheduled for release on December 29.

EDITION #262 - JUNE/AUGUST 2020 (Posted: June 8, 2020)

The true King of Rock 'n' Roll

Little Richard 1932-2020

Comic Tribute

Pioneering American rock legend Little Richard, best known for his innovative hits that launched the rock genre during the 1950s, passed away on May 9 at age 87. Here is a Hounds of Love tribute to the genius behind immortal classics "Tutti Frutti," "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Lucille" and inspired generations of rock and pop musicians in music, showmanship and fashion that captures the energy encapsulated by the self-anointed Architect of Rock 'n' Roll. Rest in power, Rich.

Gogh by Car

Artist rendition of the limited drive-in Immersive van Gogh exhibit, set to rev up on June 18

Planned Immersive van Gogh art exhibit gets creative in viewing during the pandemic

Gallery Preview

The highly-anticipated Immersive van Gogh exhibit which was set to make its world premiere in back in May as a 600,000 cubic-feet of immersive digital art experience featuring a curated selection of imagery from master Impressionist Vincent van Gogh's 2,000-plus catalogue of masterpieces at the Toronto Star 's former printing presses at 1 Yonge Street got severally curtailed when the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled plans for the viewing public in order of social distancing to reduce the risk of spreading the virus that would have made it virtually impossible to pull off in a regular setting.

Living up to the old adage about "the show must go on," Lighthouse Immersive -- the co-producers behind the wildly-successful The Art of Banksy exhibit two years ago (with another one planned for a future post-coronavirus date) -- have come up with a inventive, yet old-fashioned way to bring the exhibit to the public: a drive-in concept that offers a visually striking immersive art experience, while maintaining public safety; currently slated for June 18-28, under the conspicuously-punny title, Gogh by Car.

"Presenting cultural events during this time of COVID-19 is an incredible challenge and we are saddened to see the cultural calendar in Toronto diminished as almost all arts institutions have cancelled their events and laid off their artists and staff," said Lighthouse Immersive co-producer Corey Ross. "We believe in the power of art to uplift, inspire and connect communities; and it is more important than ever to offer a creative outlet for Torontonians to escape and recharge during this unprecedented global crisis...and that motivated us even more, [since] we had to figure out a way that we can open this show."

How it will work is like this: like the old drive-in outdoor cinemas of yesteryear, the expansive venue will be able to accommodate only 14 vehicles per timeslot for participants to park, turn off their engines, and enjoy a 35-minute show from inside their cars, featuring an all-encompassing experience of art, light, sound, movement and imagination that evokes the highly emotional and chaotic inner consciousness of one of the greatest artists of all time, as originally conceived by the Italio-German digital outfit Atelier des Lumieres, as headed by creative director Massimiliano Siccardi and composer Luca Longobardi.

"We have been working around the clock to come up with innovative approaches that will make presenting Immersive van Gogh safe for our audiences, while keeping our artists, contractors and staff employed at their pre-COVID salaries," says co-producer Svetlana Dvoretsky. "We recognize the devastating impact that coronavirus continues to have on the livelihood of artists and the cultural industry; and will continue to do our part to support artists and make art accessible during these extraordinary circumstances. We believe strongly in the resilience of culture in this great city.

"It's not that you just walk in and see the display of his paintings. That, you can see in a museum," she concludes. "What our artists have done with this exhibit is they take you inside the painting. ...They're trying to show us their version of how the story is born in the mind of the genius."

And for those without a car? Not to worry, as the producers of Immersive van Gogh still plan to welcome larger in-person gatherings, which has been postponed until July under government ordinances of the social-distancing rules and will be extended through to September, as the organizers will continue to monitor the developments and guidance from the provincial and federal government and health experts in the coming weeks and months ahead.

***

Tickets are available with extended dates throughout September; however, the Immersive van Gogh: Gogh by Car preview will only be presented for 11 days only and with limited timeslots that are available to book on a first-come, first-serve basis. For more information, visit vangoghexhbit.ca.

Opioid thriller reaches a fevered pitch

The Last High

by Daniel Kalla

305 pp; Simon and Schuster Canada

Softcover, $22

Fiction/Medical Thriller

Book Review

Long before the COVID-19 outbreak became a worrying concern in the public eye, there was (and still is) the opioid crisis that has been taking numerous lives out there, including a few celebrity deaths in the last few years from Tom Petty to Prince. For Vancouver-based ER physician and international bestselling author Daniel Kalla, it takes on a personal level for his latest The Last High with all of its twists and turns into a palpable medical-crime thriller that feels as real within its pages.

In a downtown Vancouver hospital, toxicologist Dr. Julie Rees is called to duty after some teens overdose on spiked punch at a suburban weekend party and are rushed into ER. While one girl barely clings to life, she decides to put the comatose victim on extracorporeal membranous oxygenation (or ECMO) against the resident cardiac surgery chief's protests and hospital protocol.

When blood work done on the teen is laced with some kind of recreational substance unlike anything Rees has ever seen, she turns to a friend on the Vancouver Police Department detective unit, Anson Chen, to see what the drug could be. After a series of overdoses from the same drug start popping up all over the city from homeless junkies to white-collar thrill-seekers, the two of them get unexpectedly caught up in a complex series of connections to what is quickly being called "The Last High" on the streets involving unsuspecting pushers and deliverers to local criminal gangs willing to go to war to get a piece of the action they must quash before it gets too popular -- and deadly for all those involved.

As his track record of past hits Rage Therapy , We All Fall Down and (the ironically timely) Pandemic have shown, Kalla maintains a steady flow for this realistically intriguing novel with a Canadian flavour is worth the time spent reading it.

Among its many strengths, the author puts a concerted effort to make this a character-driven stories behind his protagonists and antagonists as well as throwing in a few high-stake chases and medical techno-babble, especially for Rees as flawed accidental heroine with a troubled past yet surrounded by good friends and colleagues to help her battle her demons as well as sort out her feelings for Chen that become apparently more than just professional.

If you enjoy such medical thrillers done in the same tradition as Robin Cook and Michael Crichton, The Last High will keep its readers on edge to its final pages as well as bring an appreciated look at the frontline workers who currently toil in our nursing homes, medical clinics and hospitals battling the COVID-19 virus that we don't often see in our daily lives -- or even prior to it.

Wartime tale of love of friends and books neatly woven

The Paris Library

by Janet Skeslien Charles

351 pp; Atria Books/Simon and Schuster Canada

Softcover, $24.99

Fiction/Historical Fiction

Book Review

After a stint as a programs manager at the famed American Library in Paris about ten years ago, award-winning author Janet Skeslien Charles (Moonlight in Odessa) found a story to weave her second novel The Paris Library, loosely basing it on actual events and people at the Library during the Nazi occupation of France; that will touch hearts over friendship, family and the love and appreciation of literature.

Stranded and bored with life in Froid, Montana -- yes, it actually does exists -- during the 1980s, Lily is a teenaged girl longing for something outside her small farming town, if not totally obsessed with one day going to France. Dealing with a sickly homemaker mother and a semi-distant banker father, her life makes an unexpected turnaround when she decides to interview for a school report on her neighbour Odile Gustafson, who has lived a quasi-hermitic life since arriving there with her late veteran husband as a French war bride.

Before long, she and Odile become close friends from teaching her French language, culture and cuisine to being her confidante at her lowest points during a tumultuous adolescence, as well as her knowledge on all things literary; the elderly widow slowly but surely reveals about her life in pre-World War II Paris as the headstrong daughter of a police commissioner and housewife, along with her beloved fraternal twin brother Remy and Paul, her parental-approved police officer boyfriend.

Landing her dream job at the American Library in Paris that opened back during the Depression Era as a place of knowledge and community, including dealing with a eclectic melange of fellow staff members, patrons and events for all their goings-on, quirks and sometimes gossip; they all become like extended family members to Odile up until the war breaks out and the possible danger of the library's existence when Nazi Germany rolls their tanks into the French capital by 1940.

Caught in the swirl of situations in trying to keep the Library operational under the Nazis, Lily's curiosity gets the better of her one day when she stumbles upon some dark secrets her neighbour would rather keep and stay buried which threatens to derail their friendship, and yet offers to redeem Odile's lifetime of guilt that she's carried all this time.

The Paris Library offers a mix of adventure, intrigue, romance, betrayal, loss and regret the author smartly layers and shifts between the two time periods of wartime Europe and Reaganite America that is not your usual "chick-lit" reading staple, as much as it does offers a solid and simple story of two souls crushed by their own personal sorrows in finding solace and common ground in the most unlikeliest circumstances which makes it a satisfactory read for historical fiction buffs and bibliophiles.

EDITION #261 - WEEK OF MARCH 23-29

Euro comic series steps up to new levels

Dance Class Volume #10: Letting It Go

by Beka and Crip; translated from French by Joe Johnson

46 pp; Bamboo Edition/Papercutz/Raincoast Books

Hardcover, $14.50

Graphic Novel and Comics/Children's Literature

Book Review

After a three-year wait, the popular Euro kid-lit graphic novel series Dance Class returns with its long-awaited English version of Letting It Go, the tenth by the French comics trio, writers Bertrand Escaich and Caroline Rogue (a.k.a. Beka) and artist Crip, with their first classical ballet-based story in quite a while as well as bringing some new dimensions into their characters that show a shift in how the series has progressed in the ten years they've been creating it.

The series centers around three teenaged girls living in a unnamed French suburb outside of Paris, the de facto leader Julie, boy-crazy Alia and foodie-loving Lucie; who juggle the usual aspects of adolescence, school, family, boys and their mutual love for dance they've dedicated themselves to in attending the local dance school run by the quasi-dictatorial Miss Anne, who teaches the ballet division with modern/jazz dancer Mary, African Dance instructor Fatou and Franco-Arab hip-hop dancer KT (why they don't use his actual name Kader from the original French versions for here is unknown), plus occasionally travelling the world to perform.

In the school's annual year-end ballet recital, they've chosen to do the Hans Christian Andersen classic fairytale "The Snow Queen" and their resident costumer Nathalia has come up a stunningly masterpiece dance dress for the show's titular character; which usually goes to Julie for being the dance school's top-notch dancer. Suddenly, the dress goes missing from the storage room and all eyes suspect Carla in stealing it which she professes innocence to such a charge.

Being the series' long-time antagonist in pulling dirty tricks and prima donna attitude among her fellow classmates -- and always getting stuck with the villainess role in every recital (except once) -- it's now up to Carla to play detective on who may have stolen the dress while the others, including Julie's younger sister Capucine, rehearse intensely for the show.

Short in size with 46 pages, the creators still haven't loss their touch with the characters, sturdy stories and crisp, clean artwork in their dance adaptations, change room dramas and high concept humour well packed enough to keep readers of all ages fully engaged and this volume doesn't disappoint in the least.

Beka and Crip have made some changes in character development since the last volume came out, with the dynamic dance trio of Julie, Alia and Lucie looking like older teens; the precocious if equally talented Capucine being elevated from being six to now an eight-year old and for the first time they've decided to make Carla a more sympathetic frenemy rather than playing the archetypical poor little rich girl craving the limelight.

Dance Class fans old and new will fully enjoy Letting It Go and the changes involved that may pave a differing future for the series (they've already released an eleventh book in its native France, so could be awhile before it gets translated and I would love to see an "origin" story of how they met) as the young ladies slowly face adulthood and get a deeper perspective on pursuing a career in dance.

***

Dance Class 3-in-1 Volume #2, which collects previously-released Volumes 4-6; will be published on July 7.

The Gambler breaks even

Kenny Rogers 1938-2020

Comic Tribute

Country music legend Kenny Rogers, best known for his gravelly voice, premature silvery hair and rugged looks whilst landing a rack of crossover country hits from 1970s through '80s, passed away on March 20 at age 81. Here is a Hounds of Love tribute to the man who immortalized himself in his iconic signature Western ballad (plus acted in a series of hit TV films of the same name), "The Gambler."

EDITION #260 - WEEK OF MARCH 16-22

Edgy survival thriller reflects intensive times

The Hunt (Universal)

Cast: Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, Ike Barinholtz, Wayne Duvall

Director: Craig Zobel

Producers: Jason Blum and Damon Lindelof

Screenplay: Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof; inspired by the 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell

Film Review

Shutout from its planned release due to a series of mass shootings in the United States last fall, the controversial ultra-violent thriller The Hunt gets its release that not only provides the splatter-fest in all its fully uncut mandate, it also explores the current political divides in America done a la Tarantino style from the producers behind the 2018 Academy Award-winning Get Out.

Twelve strangers wake up one morning, disoriented in a field in the middle of nowhere with gag-balls in their mouths with only a large wooden crate loaded with weapons to arm them against a hunt put on by a group of wealthy elites -- and the game is them.

As they get picked off one by one, there's one amongst them they've underestimated as being easy prey, a rental car attendant named Crystal (Gilpin) with some mad survivor skills and a even more enigmatic personality to boot who is out to turn the tables on them in equal fashion to find out why she and her fellow victims were specifically targeted for this sick blood-sport as organized by their mysterious steely-nerved leader, Athena (Swank).

Loaded with action and dark humour, director Craig Zobel (Compliance; Z for Zachariah) manages to make a case study of the have and have-nots of the world in this Hunger Games for adults with its frenzy pacing and camera angles keeping things as edgy and guessable as possible sharply as concocted within Nick Cuse and co-producer Damon Lindelof's brilliant script.

Gilpin will have audiences cheering as the protagonist willing to fight back against her privileged captors and is just as merciless in her methods in staying alive, cut in the same tradition of cinematic badass heroines; Swank takes on a rare villainess part as the petty yet stone-hearted Athena in her best film role in years (Oscar material here), but it is Amy Madigan and Reed Birney as elderly gas station owners caught in the crossfire provide the film's standout moment, next to its climatic showdown.

The Hunt does bring out a lot of topical issues from immigration, political-incorrectness to gun rights to the forefront in a twisty, layered social satire-cum-revenge tale on societal divisions and the pent-up rage felt in every film frame worth sitting through to reflect on these really intensive times we find ourselves living in.

Multi-abled dance troupe puts in noble efforts

Propeller Dance: Spasticus/Flesh & Spokes (Danceworks/Harbourfront Centre)

Fleck Dance Theatre, 207 Queen's Quay West, 3rd Floor

Friday, March 13; 7:30 p.m.

Dance Review

The acclaimed Ottawa-based Propeller Dance Company is a unique one in its mandate to bring able-bodied and disabled performers together onstage since 2007 in returning to Danceworks series this season for a short three-date run at Harbourfront Centre's Fleck Dance Theatre with Spasticus/Flesh & Spokes that showed some originality in one but floundered just a bit in another.

Spasticus , based on the 1981 post-disco song "Spasticus Autisticus" by British punk legend Ian Dury (1942-2000) on his take against the UN-declared International Year of the Disabled in the same year for what he saw as it being a patronizing "feel-good" notion instead of it raising awareness and respect; came out as its strongest piece in its 25-minute run time.

Biographical in the perspective of Dury's own childhood crippled by polio -- that included an opening clip government archival film from the 1950s documenting the malady -- and being incarcerated in institutions that wanted to shelter society away from their existence, it goes from the dancers portraying an idyllic summer day at a local public pool then swiftly dives into the nadir of isolationism and cruel treatment by orderlies and medical staff members of the period.

Resurfacing into a defiant mode with Dury's video (where he parodies the ancient Roman rebel slave cry "I'm Spartacus") in the backdrop while the dancers' contemporary and b-boying moves as a celebratory triumph, as created and choreographed by Liz Winkelaar along with the dance ensemble, within an ethereal score and lighting by Dominique Saint-Pierre and Chantal Labonte, respectively.

The same couldn't be replicated by its second number Flesh & Spokes , unfortunately, despite having a good start as a improvisational ballet of sorts with Indigenous hoop dancing involving small Cyr-Wheels and wheelchairs meant to represent freedom, unity, inclusion and beauty to the wheel and its mobile application that has made human movement possible.

It struggles at midpoint as one dismantles his own chair as supposed bid for freedom from the device itself doesn't come across well enough; and at 42 minutes it could have worked better if creator/choreographer Renata Soutter (with company) trimmed its time length down a bit.

Nonetheless, Propeller Dance does put on a noble effort to break down stereotypes and is brave enough to be experimental in their worthy choreographic works, not to mention the young and dynamic talent that includes members Cee Ancheta, Sylvain Bouchard, Bella Bowes, Ada Chan, Robert Chartier, Geoff Dollar, Jessie Huggett, Nicolas Benoit Mariaca and Russell Winkelaar should be duly acknowledged for their energy and enthusiasm they present.

EDITION #259 - WEEK OF MARCH 9-15

Magic-realism grounds Peter Pan retell

Wendy (Searchlight Pictures)

Cast: Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin

Director: Benh Zeitlin

Producers: Becky Glupczynski, Dan Janvey, Paul Mezey and Josh Penn

Screenplay: Benh Zeitlin and Eliza Zeitlin; inspired by the J.M. Barrie story Peter Pan

Film Review

Not many filmmakers would take approximately eight years to make a follow-up after earning such critical acclaim, including a couple of Academy Award nominations, with their first film like Benh Zeitlin did with the 2012 art-house indie darling Beasts of the Southern Wild. Tailoring Wendy within the realms of magic-realism, this modern retelling of Peter Pan has a more grounded approach taken here makes it worth the wait.

Being raised by their single mother (Shay Walker) who also juggles running a greasy spoon restaurant near a New Orleans train station, the preteen tomboy Wendy Darling (France) and her older identical twin brothers Douglas and James (Gage and Gavin Naquin) go about their merry childhood, without giving so much of a thought about the inevitability of leaving it behind.

Wendy awakens to see a young sprite-like figure (Mack) one night riding the rails calling to join him on an adventure which she and the boys hitch onto, calling himself Peter Pan. Whisking them away to a volcanic tropical isle with other kids their own ages, they're baffled to find amongst the group their long-lost schoolmate Thomas Rockwell (Krzysztof Meyn), who hasn't aged a day over six when he ran away from home years ago.

As freewill and child's play reign supreme around here, they learn that this island's "fountain of youth" is maintained by an aquatic creature Peter dubs as Mother for whom some aged hermitic adults, the island's other inhabitants, want to hunt down in order to gain immortality by eating its flesh. When Douglas goes missing, James heads into a downward spiral into something darker that Wendy and Peter must reverse in order to save this paradise from possible chaos (to tell anything more would be a spoiler).

Zeitlin puts an ambitiously brave dive into the Peter Pan mythos for Wendy , as co-written with his production designer sister Eliza Zeitlin; by adding a little neo-Southern Gothic and remnants of Lord of the Flies -- slightly minus the gore -- that's made him that rare oddity in modern American cinema as an original storyteller with his journeyman camera eye.

Like he did with Beasts , the director has a knack for sporting young talent that he fills up with the younger cast members and older actors working well together; plus he finds another ingenue in France as the titular protagonist wise beyond her years whilst grappling with her yearn for freedom without losing the childlike spirit she projects is quite believable and Mack lights up the screen whenever he appears in giving a raw, energetic effort into being "the boy who never grows up."

Infused with a kinetic score by Zeitlin and Dan Romer and Sturla Brandth Grovlen's steady cinematography, the film touches those age-old themes about growing up, letting go and maintaining that aspect of youthful wonderment the filmmakers imbue with a poetic language in the screenplay and retaining some of the same basic structures and philosophies of the classic children's tale.

Slick historical drama heavy on the petropolitics

Oil (ARC)

Geary Lane, 360 Geary Avenue (north of Dufferin and Dupont)

Friday, March 6; 7:30 p.m.

Theatre Review

English, Persian and Arabic with English surtitles

One of the more ambitious plays written in the last decade, Oil by British playwright Ella Hickson tackles a lot of issues on energy, empire, technology, environmentalism and mother-daughter relationships in questioning the choices and sacrifices we make with ourselves and in the name of progress as remarkably executed by the ARC Stage company for its Canadian premiere run in the expansive five-part drama it takes.

Expanding on a stretch of 150 years from the Industrial Age to the far-flung future, it centers on May Singer (Bahareh Yaraghi) starting as an impoverished British farmer's wife in 1880 Cornwall carrying her unborn child when one chilly winter's night an American salesman presents the newly-invented kerosene lamp that sparks something within and motivates her to seek her own destiny.

By the time her daughter Amy (Samantha Brown) is born, we find them resurfacing from pivotal points in history from May working as a single mother and servant in 1908 Tehran when the British were out to control Persia (present-day Iran)'s natural resources through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now BP plc); in 1970 Hampstead as a global oil CEO faced with dire situation when Libya under Muammar al-Qaddafi nationalizes their oil that threatens to cut their profits and a rebellious teenaged Amy under her roof; then as a British MP trying to lure Amy back home from her war zone aid worker duties in near-future (2025!) Kurdistan, and finally in 2051 Cornwall where the future is seemingly bleak for both themselves and the planet.

The play packs quite a yarn on the interconnectivity of a family caught up within the folds of human history mitigated by time, ambition, power and control with the consequences it brings under Aviva Armour-Ostroff and Christopher Stanton's pointed direction, Nick Blais' effective lighting designs, the ominous score work of Maddie Bautista and sparsely-propped, minimalist stage backdrop by Jackie Chau makes for compelling viewing that doesn't feel half as long in the 2 1/2-hour running time it takes.

Yaraghi and Brown do bounce off each other very well in the familial complexities that are expected at every stage it takes, along with the supporting cast of Deborah Drakeford, Lily Gao, Ryan Hollyman, Cyrus Lane, Shadi Shahkhalili, Courtenay Stevens and Nabil Traboulsi in varying roles throughout in the bits of comedy and drama they deliver on imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism, naiveties and arrogance and, on the odd occasion, bitter ironies that come back to haunt the central characters.

The words and deeds of Oil ring just as solidly true now as it did at its 2016 debut with its scathing indictments of past and present petropolitics and the eco-message Hickson clearly underlines, as it does with the personal relationships it touches (and taints) with true perspective we should be listening to.

***

Oil continues through March 21. For tickets and information, phone 1-800-838-3006 or arcstage.com or oilto.brownpapertickets.com

Silent video installation shrouds palatial dreams

Nir Evron: A Free Moment

Venue: Salah J. Bachir New Media Wall, Ryerson Image Centre, 33 Gould Street

Dates/Times: Through April 5; Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Wednesdays 11 a.m.-8 p.m. and weekends 12-5 p.m.

Admission/Information: FREE. Call 416-979-5164 or visit ryersonimagecentre.ca

Gallery Review

Israeli artist/filmmaker Nir Evron brings his 2011 silent short A Free Moment to discuss the meaning of identity and regional intricacies as his take on the Mid-East Conflict at the Ryerson Image Centre's Salah J. Bachir New Media Wall which raises more questions on the idea of nationhood and the nagging geopolitics that complicates things.

Done in silent black and white in a singular continuous shot on a dolly track through the ruins of Royal Palace at Tell el-ful, which was supposed to be the Summer Palace for the Jordanian royal family when it started construction in 1966 in East Jerusalem, its work got interrupted by the 1967 Six-Day War and, later, with the ongoing occupation by Israeli forces that has left it incomplete since that is now near the Israeli settlement of Pisgat Ze'ev.

Through its grainy 35 mm lens, the panning shot of a sprawling Beit Hanina, turns into a dizzying motion as it rising toward a overcast sky and ceiling of all its nooks and crannies of what might have been a impressive residence amidst the collected rubble and desert dust in this slow zoom-out with snippets of the Arab neighborhood of Shuafat in a semi-blurry sense as goes through the husk of the building's floor.

As a throwback to 1960s experimental cinema in a non-narrative and anti-illusionist approach, Evron's four-minute video study mirrors the history of this contested land between Israel and Palestine that befuddles the situation even more so now, even in the post-First Arab Spring movement where one wonders how certain events can change borderlines in inexplicit ways beyond our reach.

EDITION #258 - WEEK OF MARCH 2-8

Roland Gulliver becomes new TIFA Artistic Director

Vet British festival director brings experience to Harbourfront Centre's annual lit-fest

Arts Feature

After a thorough search for a new Artistic Director to replace the retired Geoffrey Taylor, who had spearheaded and expanded the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) over the last sixteen years, Harbourfront Centre and TIFA announced that Roland Gulliver will be filling in the slot and has begun his new duties to set up the fall literary classic in October for its 41st edition.

An accomplished festival director with 20 years of experience working in the cultural sector across many countries -- the last twelve at the Edinburgh International Book Festival -- Gulliver has become one of the leading international figures in the literary world. "I am immensely excited and honoured to be coming to Toronto and to lead the Toronto International Festival of Authors, a festival I have known and admired for many years, into its next ambitious phase," he said, in taking the position.

"I had the pleasure of participating in the 30th anniversary of the festival (in 2009), working with the team to program a number of Scottish authors as part of their celebration of Scottish writing. I am looking forward to celebrating Canada's rich, diverse and dynamic literary scene and to sharing with its audiences the joy of books, stories and writing, and to creating conversations on issues that affect Toronto, Canada and beyond."

While at the prestigious Edinburgh International Book Festival, the largest literature festival in the world; Gulliver brought in headline stars and literary favourites, incorporated comics and graphic novels, a hip-hop and literary cabaret and developed multiple community-based events offering access and empowerment through the arts to new audiences. Prior to his Edinburgh tenure, Gulliver had worked with the British Council in Brussels and the Six Cities Design Festival in Glasgow. He holds a Master of Arts (Hons.) Degree in English Literature from University of Edinburgh.

Since 1974, TIFA has hosted over 9,000 authors from more than one hundred countries worldwide, including twenty-two Nobel Laureates. The festival connects bookworms of every kind with leading authors and provides forums to showcase Canadian talent to the world. TIFA presents events and programs all year round and will celebrate the 41st edition of the Festival this year.

"The Toronto International Festival of Authors is an important part of Toronto's rich cultural landscape and attracting someone of Roland's calibre to lead the festival forward is a testament to its reputation and its accomplishments," said Harbourfront Centre CEO Marah Braye. "We spent significant time on a global search for our next Director and Roland was our top candidate from the start," concurred TIFA Board President Charles Baillie. "We believe that TIFA has the potential to grow from Canada's largest and longest-running festival of words and ideas to be one of the world's top literary events. Roland's experience and vision will greatly enhance our ability to achieve that objective."

***

For more information on TIFA and its year-round programs, visit festivalofauthors.ca or harbourfrontcentre.com.

"Tain" and Dan Hill make dates at Hugh's Room Live

A jazz skins legend and the iconic Canadian hit-maker grace the west-end venue in March

Music Preview

Coming from the jazz resurgence era of the 1990s, Jeff "Tain" Watts makes a rare Toronto appearance with his trio at Hugh's Room Live (2261 Dundas Street West) as part of the music venue's Live Drum Week on March 14, where the Grammy-winning performer will show-off his dexterity on the drums that's made him a more than sought-after percussionist for more than four decades.

Nicknamed "Tain" as a shortened version of "captain" for his drum technique, the graduate of Duquesne University of Pittsburgh and Berklee School of Music first earned his mettle as part of the original Wynton Marsalis Quartet in 1981 through 1988, then joining Wynton's brother Branford Marsalis Quartet in 1989 where he earned Grammy Awards for both brothers' bands , been voted Best Drummer in Modern Drumming Magazine 's polls in 1988 and 1995 respectively and more recently been made a Guggenheim Fellow in the field of Music Composition in 2017.

Working for the likes of George Benson, Danilo Perez, Michael Brecker, Betty Carter, Kenny Kirkland, Courtney Pine, Geri Allen, Alice Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Harry Connick Jr, and Ravi Coltrane as well as for himself, Watts brings in a sense of elegance, tried-by-fire composure and a gritty street funk to his music. His artistic ingenuity expresses itself in his incomparable technique, sweltering sense of swing, and an extraordinary ability to imbue his music with majestic grace and elegant repose.

And Juno- and Grammy-winning singer/songwriter/producer Dan Hill is back to not only perform his classic hits "Can't We Try," "Never Thought (That I Could Love)," "(Don't Tell Me) How I Feel" and his household-making signature ballad "Sometimes When We Touch" on March 28 at Hugh's Room Live, he'll be debuting some new songs to be released on a EP -- his first in over ten years -- later on this year.

Other than touring that's kept Hill out the recording studio in the last while, the multiple gold and platinum album hit-maker has been a prolific author with his critically-acclaimed 2009 memoir I Am My Father's Son (HarperCollins Canada) and writing feature articles for leading publications, including his regular columns for Diabetes Magazine (he himself is a diabetic) and Maclean's "In the Studio" and even recalled his experiences with heavyweight boxing champion Manny Pacquiao for The Globe and Mail.

***

Tickets now on sale. For more information, call 416-533-5483 or hughsroomlive.com.

EDITION #257 - WEEK OF FEBRUARY 24-MARCH 1

BSC spinoff casts a spell on younger readers

Baby-Sitters Little Sister #1: Karen's Witch

by Katy Farina; based on the Ann M. Martin novel

140 pp; Graphix/Scholastic Canada

Softcover, $13.99

Graphic Novel and Comics/Children's Literature

Book Review

Thanks to the popular adaptation of its graphic novels, the classic Baby-Sitters Club series is being given another life not only as a new Netflix streaming series and a fan-based documentary by filmmaker Sue Ding The Claudia Kishi Club, based on one of its popular characters in the coming months ahead, its own spinoffs are being made centering around firstly with Baby-Sitters Little Sister #1: Karen's Witch for younger readers.

Starring BSC president/founder Kristy Thomas' six-year old stepsister Karen Brewer, whose overtly-active imagination of spinning spooky tales get her into trouble from time to time; is on her biweekly weekend visit to her father and stepfamily along with her younger brother Andrew that usually is a grand time for her, except that their elderly and slightly eccentric neighbour Mrs. Porter and her cat Midnight lives and believes she's really a witch.

Dubbing her as Morbidda Destiny, the nosy little girl can't help but break the rule on spying on the oft-reclusive lady next door in a way-too-quiet house and dilapidated lawn and garden, despite her father's warnings and teenaged stepsister Kristy who don't believe she has anything to do with witchcraft of any sort.

This one particular autumn weekend, Karen manages to drag her local best friend Hannie Papadakis after overhearing some strange goings-on of late that she thinks a gathering of witches at Mrs. Porter's place is about to commence and whatever "fiendish" plans they're up to have to be stopped and must summon up all her courage to stop them to save her family and hometown from certain doom.

Fans of the series of all ages will enjoy this new edition to the BSC Graphic Universe as noted comics artist/illustrator Katy Farina steps into creating a pleasingly kid-friendly art style and readable format apart from the slightly sophisticated storylines of the previous series started by Raina Telgemeier and Gale Galligan, and as coloured by Braden Lamb that is just as fun to read.

More than that, it's a lesson on allowing imagination as a playmate and also about learning to overcome fears, even unfounded ones, as an indispensable growing tool for readers ages 5-8. It certainly paves the way for more stories to come surrounding Karen and her recently-formed stepfamily, particular in bonding with Kristy who's learned to love and connect with her new stepsister as another maturing aspect for her, albeit it being short subplot added to it.

Nevertheless, the Baby-Sitters Little Sister series is off to a good start with Karen's Witch (second book Karen's Skates comes out July 7) loaded with some wonderful artwork, pacing and sticking relatively true to Ann M. Martin's original 1988 storyline in wisely catering to the audience it's aiming for.

***

Baby-Sitters Club Graphic Novel #8: Logan Likes Mary-Anne! is set for release on September 1.

Van Gogh does Toronto

Netherlander master painter gets a new touring exhibit launch-off in Toronto this spring

Gallery Preview

Probably one of the art world's most misunderstood artists to ever join its ranks, Vincent van Gogh and his seemingly tortured and dark artworks that didn't garner much attention in the 19th century but now is celebrated and studied by artisans and academia almost 130 years after his death.

Toronto now gets the privilege of becoming the launching pad of a new global touring exhibit, Immersive Van Gogh, from the originators of the Parisian Atelier des Lumieres exhibition that has been seen by more than two million visitors worldwide and has inspired the global trendsetting phenomenon of immersive digital art experiences, comes an all-new visually striking achievement that invites audiences to step inside Vincent van Gogh's most incredible works of art for a limited engagement run, as designed by Italian film producer Massimiliano Siccardi and scored by multimedia composer Luca Longobardi, who is renowned for bringing together classical and contemporary genres to life.

The exhibition will feature a curated selection of images from Van Gogh's 2,000-plus lifetime catalogue of masterpieces including the "Mangeurs de pommes de terre (The Potato Eaters, 1885)," "Nuit etoilee (Starry Night, 1889)," "Les Tournesols (Sunflowers, 1888)" and "La Chambre a coucher (The Bedroom, 1889)." These paintings will be presented as how the artist first saw the scenes they are based on: active life and moving landscapes turned into sharp yet sweeping brushstrokes.

"Van Gogh's art never stops inspiring and challenging me as an artist," said Siccardi. "I am honoured to have the opportunity to collaborate with Luca Longobardi once again to bring Van Gogh's vast catalogue of work to life in an entirely new experience that offers an unprecedented understanding of his world."

Produced by Lighthouse Immersive (formerly Starvox Entertainment and Show One Productions), who brought the runaway 2018 blockbuster art show The Art of Banksy ; the exhibit will be a interactive art show of art, light, sound, movement and imagination to van Gogh's works to be housed at Toronto Star 's former printing presses, next to the Toronto Star Building itself; located at 1 Yonge Street starting May 1.

"Immersive Van Gogh is astonishing in scale, breathtakingly stunning and induces a completely novel experience to the iconic works of Van Gogh," says Lighthouse Immersive producer Corey Ross of the exhibit. "We're incredibly excited to be working directly with the masters of the art form of immersive digital art to present the foremost exhibition of this calibre and artistic innovation to Canada."

"The exhibition is specifically designed to envelop every square inch of the expansive 600,000 cubic-foot (16,990.1 cubic-metre) venue to create a seamless transformative experience," said co-producer Svetlana Dvoretsky. "There were very few venues in the city that could accommodate the proportions, scale and unbridled creativity of Siccardi and Longobardi. It's an ambitious undertaking and will be unlike anything North American audiences have ever experienced before."

***

Tickets now on sale. For more information, call 1-844-307-4644 or vangoghexhibit.ca.

Hamilton gets the cinematic treatment (of sorts) from Disney

Walt Disney Company sets to release live film version of musical phenom next fall

Arts Feature

Missed out on snapping up seats of Toronto's current hottest theatre event (or not wanting to dish out the overpriced remaining tickets) for Hamilton? Unless you're willing to wait out for its inevitable return to town or head off to the production runs in New York and London's West End, it's been announced that the Walt Disney Company just forked over US$75 million for the exclusive right to release the live filmed version of Lin-Manuel Miranda's multiple-winning musical phenomenon on the life and times of the American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton to hit North American screens on October 15, 2021.

Five years after winning eleven Tonys, a Grammy, Drama Desk, Obie, Olivier and a Drama Pulitzer Prizes and raking in US$500 million, the production footage of two performances at the Richard Rogers Theatre was actually shot in June 2016 with the original Broadway cast and had been sitting in the vaults that producers Miranda, Jeffery Seller and Thomas Kail -- who also directed it -- with no idea at the time of what to do with it, as Miranda once tweeted: "What are we doing with that footage? No idea. Throwing it in a (fictional Harry Potter) vault at Gringotts for a bit. But we're getting it.

"It's no secret that we filmed it," he told later to Variety. "We filmed the show with the original cast the week before the beginning cast members began to leave the show. What I'm most excited about is there will be a point at which, you all have that friend who brags, 'I saw it with the original cast.' We're stealing that brag from everyone. Because you're all going to see it with the original cast. We're just trying to find the right time to do it."

Ordinarily something like this would either make it on public television like PBS, an arts channel like Bravo or nowadays get a special limited screening at cinemas like they do with ballet, opera and gallery exhibitions. But after working with Disney on writing a few songs for the 2016 Academy Award-nominated animated feature Moana (and getting a Oscar nom for "How Far I'll Go") as well as acting in 2018's Mary Poppins Returns, Miranda delivers the full treatment with him in his Tony-winning portrayal of Alexander Hamilton and cast members Daveed Diggs as the Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson; Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler; Leslie Odom, Jr. as Aaron Burr; Tony nominees Christopher Jackson as George Washington; Jonathan Groff as King George; Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton; Jasmine Cephas Jones as Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds; Okieriete Onaodowan as Hercules Mulligan/James Madison and Anthony Ramos as John Laurens/Philip Hamilton.

"I fell in love with musical storytelling growing up with the legendary Howard Ashman-Alan Menken Disney collaborations -- The Little Mermaid, Beauty and The Beast [and] Aladdin," Miranda stated on allowing Disney to present the live theatre film version. "I'm so proud of what Tommy Kail has been able to capture in this filmed version of Hamilton -- a live theatrical experience that feels just as immediate in your local movie theatre. We're excited to partner with Disney to bring the original Broadway company of Hamilton to the largest audience possible."

But here's the real clincher: will Hamilton get censored by the House of Mouse? Considering that some of the musical's format of hip-hop, R&B, jazz and show tunes and dialogue have some profanities (the opening line of the very first number speaks for itself: "How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman,..") peppered throughout that won't jive with Disney's family-friendly sensitivities to give it a PG-13 rating, not to mention it's not going be under any of their studio banners that use to handle their more adult fares from the 1980s through 2010s, like the currently-dormant Touchstone Pictures or long-shuttered Hollywood Pictures did.

When pressed for an answer on that touchy subject most recently at the 2020 Academy Awards, Miranda had this to say: "I think we'll figure it out when we get there, but we're not going to cut any sections of the show. If we have to mute a word here or there to reach the largest audience possible, I'm okay with that, because your kids already have the original language memorized. I don't think we're depriving anyone of anything if we mute an f-bomb here or there to make our [PG or PG-13] rating."

And what about an actual film adaptation that been punted around for the last couple of years? Not anytime soon according to Miranda who said in 2017 that it probably won't be made "...for years, so that people have ample time to see the stage version first," despite that a first-draft script written by Quiara Alegria Hudes, his book writer for his first musical In The Heights (its own film version, directed by Jon M. Chu; will hit cinemas June 26 to be released by Warner Bros.), has been made but currently is being shelved.

Until that day, we'll just settle for this version, as Walt Disney Company Chairman/CEO Robert A. Iger puts it: "Lin-Manuel Miranda created an unforgettable theatre experience and a true cultural phenomenon, and it was for good reason that Hamilton was hailed as an astonishing work of art. All who saw it with the original cast will never forget that singular experience. And we're thrilled to have the opportunity to share this same Broadway experience with millions of people around the world."

EDITION #256 - WEEK OF FEBRUARY 17-23

Baton Rouge chanteuse delivers the love and laughs

Quiana Lynell (TO Live)

George Weston Hall, Meridian Arts Centre, 5040 Yonge Street

Saturday, February 15; 8 p.m.

Concert Review

For over twenty years the George Weston Hall has hosted jazz legends and newcomers to its stage and since its takeover by TO Live a couple of years back, this tradition continues with a flourish in bringing in the Texas-born, Baton Rouge-based singer/songwriter Quiana Lynell to a relatively anticipative house on February 15 and easily won the audience with her honey-smoothed, yet fluid vocal range.

With Daniel Meinecke on piano, double bassist Jonathan Michel, drummer Barry Douglas and guitarist Alex Wintz backing her up, they filled the hall with a warm samba vibe for opening number "Open the Door" with the reminiscent over-easy quality of Natalie Cole that remained throughout the 90-minute concert, as well as Lynell's connective humour with the audience relating to it instantaneously.

Out promoting her recently released debut full-length album A Little Love (Concord Jazz), the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition Award-winning chanteuse also had a message to deliver to us all in trying to help us all get along in doing a few original tunes to soothe the current state of the world, especially for her polarized nation of late; with the bluesy "Tryin' Times," protest song "Sing Out, March On" to a cover of the Nina Simone Civil Rights-era classic, "I Wish I Knew What It Feel to Be Free."

Other highlights of her performance was adding a nice R&B touch to Whitney Houston's "Just The Lonely Talking Again," a West Coast flow over "Move Me No Mountain" courtesy of Wintz's diligent strums, getting all funny-cute with her take on the old standard "My Baby Just Cares for Me" along with Michel, light and peppy with "You Hit the Spot" and closer tunes "Love Can't Wait 'Til Tomorrow" and the swinging powerhouse blues found on "Hip Shakin' Momma."

Demonstrating her supple talent best is heard with "Love 'Til I Die," where she and the other band members do the number in a fast-paced motion while managing to throw in some Ella-like scat in one beat, then going for a operatic loftiness in another is no easy task and very few singers can achieve this flawlessly, which is what she has going for her and will take her far in the jazz world. Hopefully, this will not be the last time we will hear from this newbie talent to grace our presence again.

***

Lynell's album A Little Love is available on the Concord Jazz label. Visit concord.com or quianalynell.com.

Photo-journo exhibit reports proof and pride of the Afro-Carib Diaspora

A unnamed Caribana reveler from the 1980s taken from Jules Elder's camera makes part of the Eyes, Ears, Voice: Black Canadian Photojournalists 1970s-1990s photo exhibit at Meridian Arts Centre Gallery.

Eyes, Ears, Voice: Black Canadian Photojournalists 1970s-1990s (BAND Gallery/TO Live)

Venue: Meridian Arts Centre Gallery, Meridian Arts Centre, 5040 Yonge Street

Dates/Times: Through March 8; Thursday-Sunday 1-6 p.m.

Admission/Information: FREE. Call 416-250-3708 or visit meridianartscentre.com

Gallery Review

During the postwar years when Canada changed its immigration policies in the 1960s, a wave of Caribbean immigrants came to a (little bit more) open and liberalized country willing to welcome them than the United States -- along with avoiding the civil upheaval of that period -- that came with the precondition that they serve in the Vietnam War, as my father recalled from his native Trinidad (some guys he knew that took the American offer in order to study there, never came back from that military misadventure) who was amongst that influx, by way of England.

Not wanting to lose touch within the burgeoning community and back home, a few African-Caribbean publications came into being that included the still-running Share and long-defunct Spear and Contrast that make up the bulk of the small but tony photo exhibit Eyes, Ears, Voice: Black Canadian Photojournalists 1970s-1990s at the Meridian Arts Centre Gallery, in a conjunction with the Queen Street West-located BAND Gallery that specializes in presenting African and African Diaspora-based works.

Featuring 41 photos by pioneering African-Canadian photojournalists Jules Elder, Eddie Grant, Diane Liverpool, Al Peabody and Jim Russell in covering the newsworthy events that mattered to the community and other local mainstream media more or less ignored, it's a history lesson that brims over the positive and resurrects lost stories and issues that haven't really gone away, mostly in black and white silver gelatin and some C-prints to fill the walls.

Al Peabody entitles "Not Soweto" of the conditions 1985 Caribana revelers endured while waiting for the last Centre Island ferry after a violent clash with the police.

In particular to police harassment and brutality that increasingly rose during the 1980s, Elder captures the birth of the local activist group the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) lead by the legendary Dudley Laws in front of the Metro Toronto Police Division 52 building to Peabody covering demonstrations against fatal police shootings of African-Canadians between 1988-1989 and some anti-apartheid demos against South Africa during the mid-'80s have their intensities built up in those moments of time.

Peabody also has a couple of photos covering that previously-mentioned Carib rush with migrant farm workers from Jamaica arriving in the middle of the night at the municipal Malton Airport in the 1970s looking exhausted from their long flight if not elated in their arrival to work the long season, despite poor working conditions to help support their families back home; as well as a colour snapshot "Bathurst Street Strip" taken in the same period of the Bathurst-Bloor area that used to be the hub of the Toronto African-Canadian community and businesses for over a century, in particular to long-gone Afro-Caribbean storefronts Joyce's West Indies Foods, Third World Books and Muscoll's Beauty Supplies (now West Indian Golden Beauty Supply), has a bit of a sad nostalgia lingering to it.

Local civil rights activist legend Dudley Laws (center) amongst a throng of protestors demanding fair labour laws at a downtown Toronto demonstation, circa early 1980s.

Russell gets to convey the excitement built up around Alvin Curling, the first African-Canadian MPP to be elected to the Ontario Legislature in 1985 in his Scarborough North riding and later to serve at a cabinet-level position. Including a 1996 poem "28 Lennox Street" to describe her anger and distraught feelings about the police shootings of unarmed African-Canadian men of the period, Liverpool briefly moves away from the politics of the day and does a few visiting celebrity shots of B.B. King, Tina Turner backstage at Hamilton Place in her pre-Private Dancer era that would later bring her roaring back in the spotlight, reggae rebel-heroes Leroy Sibbles and Peter Tosh and calypsonian icon Mighty Sparrow posing with fans to Harry Belefonte speaking at a 1980 Variety Club luncheon for the Toronto Argos at Sheraton Centre.

Grant's coverage of the Essence Fashion Show and Miss Black Ontario pageants and Elder's colour series of Caribana series of the 1970s and '80s give a fully-bodied exhibit at hand to Eyes, Ears, Voice as proof and pride in of reporting and recording the joys and tragedies of a growing community at large contributing to the local and national mosaic.

EDITION #255 - WEEK OF FEBRUARY 10-16

Jailhouse drama rocks

Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train (Soulpepper Theatre)

Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane

Friday, February 7; 8 p.m.

Theatre Review

A well-known fact that while African-Americans make up about 12 percent and Hispanics 17 percent of the American population, they make up about 37 percent and 22 percent respectively of the prison populations across that nation; including 13.4 percent and 18.1 percent respectively of those waiting to be executed on Death Row. Soulpepper Theatre brilliantly brings to the stage the dark comedy-drama Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train seeing the perspectives of the correctional and justice systems plus the humanity -- or whatever is left of it -- within these prison walls.

At New York City's notorious Rikers Island Prison are the stories of two prisoners: Lucius Jenkins (Daren H. Herbert), a serial killer waiting to be extradited back to Florida to face the death penalty for his heinous crimes down there is a born-again Christian in the three years since he's been in jail and local newbie Angel Cruz (Xavier Lopez), who shot a corrupt cult leader and is trying to adapt to life on the inside.

When the cult leader dies from his injuries, his court-appointed lawyer Mary Jane Hanrahan (Diana Donnelly) weighs in on helping out her client, who feels justified in shooting his amoral victim for leading his best childhood friend astray despite previous attempts to save him; despite that it's been slightly compromised in her further meetings with Cruz and her career now put on the line.

During the allotted daily prison yard breaks as maintained by the hard-boiled prison guard Valdez (Tony Nappo) looking on with a jaundiced eye and a sadistic streak, Jenkins and Lopez strike up a tenuous relationship of sorts as they debate on life, death, morality, spirituality and redemption in the little time they have as they separately await their fates hanging in the balance.

This most powerful production, as created by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis back in 2000 to critical acclaim; is kept at an electrifying pace under director Weyni Mengesha -- who also directed Soulpepper's smash-hit run of A Streetcar Named Desire last fall -- hits hard whenever it does on the aforementioned issues (that is neither in the pro- or anti-capital punishment camps, rarely enough) on the correctional system on all levels it reaches.

Herbert brings in the most gravitas in his stunning portrayal of Jenkins with his highly infectious attitude that has a lot of wisdom with his words that gives his murderer a surprisingly humanistic soul, as much as he is deeply at inner peace with his God and eerily calm acceptance of his fate; as he explains it to his fellow inmate: "Faith ain't no gift; it's a decision."

Lopez makes good being the jittery Cruz putting on a phoney-brave machismo front that slowly cracks under the moral ambiguity of his actions pressing down on him; Donnelly as the bleeding-heart but tough liberal attorney whose attitude and ego in maintaining her duty to a flawed system holds its own merit and the good guard/bad guard roles with Gregory Prest as the all-too-brief sympathetic D'Amico being the former and Nappo, putting on a convincing New Yorker accent, as the latter who nearly takes the thunder away from Herbert and makes the Les Miserables' Inspector Javert character look like the pope.

Along with Ken MacKenzie's quite convincing prison cell set (barbed wire included) done in its basic essentials to give it the oppressiveness and constrictions it embodies with Kevin Lamotte's lighting design, Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train will be the best -- and jarring -- two hours you'll spend this year so far in a theatre with the issues that remain with you days after seeing it. Highly recommended.

***

Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train continues through February 23. For tickets and information, phone 416-866-8666 or soulpepper.ca

Black Diamond radiates; shoe exhibit needs more sole

Krystal Ball's majestic "Black Diamond" mural reigns supreme at KUUMBA Festival exhibitions.

KUUMBA Exhibits: D'Wayne Edwards/Krystal Ball/Ekow Nimako

Venue: Bill Boyle Artport, York Quay Centre, 235 Queen's Quay West

Dates/Times: Through February 29 (Edwards) and June 7 (Ball/Nimako); Daily 10 a.m.-9 p.m.

Admission/Information: FREE. Call 416-973-4000 or visit harbourfrontcentre.com/kuumba

Gallery Reviews

Part 2 of a 2-part series

Designing athletic footwear may not sound as glamorous as they look, but it's sure been good to mega-designer D'Wayne Edwards who has made his career -- and staggering US$1.5 billion in sales worldwide -- with it for over three decades as demonstrated in the mini-exhibit Making of a Legend as part of the month-long KUUMBA Festival at Harbourfront Centre's Bill Boyle Artport.

Starting his career at age 19 at L.A. Gear and Nike, and later on with his own design company PENSOLE, Edwards presents just a few items here of his work, mainly for basketball players like the stylish Karl Kani sneaker and Toronto Raptor jersey both worn by John Wallace back in the mid-1990s and the boxing glove and gold-rimmed Air Jordan Nike sneakers pro-boxer Roy Jones Jr. wore and won his world heavyweight champion title back in 2003.

A sample display at KUUMBA Festival's mini-exhibit Making of a Legend, featuring the works of sports footwear designer D'Wayne Edwards.

Considering these are a small sample from his archives, it doesn't say all that much when he could have contributed a little bit more for Making of a Legend, like maybe some rough sketches and a few more items of his output out of the 500 designs he has made for his debut exhibit. But given the space he was allotted, it's not too bad to look at either.

Ghanaian-Canadian artist Ekow Nimako's Building Black: Amorphia Sculptures as seen in the West Arcade Vitrines showcases, he creates these striking Afrofuturistic masks out of black LEGO pieces (about 50,000 for the eight on display) mainly based on African spirits like "Ezyria," "Esum" and "Mantawutu," and animal representations of the elephant-like "Khartoum" and fennec fox "Fennyx" reinforced with 25.4-mm steel tubing, that can also be seen currently at the Aga Khan Museum's Building Black: Civilizations (see review below).

Ekow Nimako builds African anthropomorphic figures "Khartoum" (left) and "Mantawutu" (right) out of LEGO blocks for the KUUMBA Festival exhibits.

And the Jamaican-born, Toronto-based mural artist Krystal Ball takes over the South Hallway section with "Black Diamond," a mixed-media installation of a richly adorned African woman model with all the power she invokes with vivid colours, that also comes with a time-lapse "making of" video at the side; being the symbolism of negritude and pride, as well as pre-colonialism, slavery and segregation people of the African Diaspora have endured for over five centuries.

***

D'Wayne Edwards will present two sneaker design workshops over the Family Day Long Weekend (February 16-17), a colour workshop and sketching workshop for aspiring designers, FREE with registration. To register, call 416-973-4000 or visit harbourfrontcentre.com/kuumba for more information.

Megaliths and monsters

"Mystic Sanctum of the Learned" is one of the six Ekow Nimako sculptures on display at the Aga Khan Museum's Building Black: Civilizations exhibit.

Ekow Nimako: Building Black: Civilizations

Venue: Aga Khan Museum, 77 Wynford Drive

Dates/Times: Through February 23; Tuesday, Thursday-Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Wednesday 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Holiday Monday (February 17) 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Admission/Information: Adult $20, Senior $15, Child (6-13) $10, Student $12, FREE Wednesdays 4-8 p.m.; Call 416-646-4677 or agakhanmuseum.org

Gallery Review

Inspired by the residing Caravans of Gold exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum, the Toronto-based artist Ekow Nimako mixes surrealism, medieval Africa and Afrofuturism for Building Black: Civilizations in questioning the definition of civilization for this contemporary exhibition like he's done with the companion exhibit Amorphia Sculptures at Harbourfront Centre's Bill Boyle Artport.

Held on two separate floors, the second floor holds five medium-sized sculptures all out of 100,000 black LEGO pieces, starting with "Mystic Sanctum of the Learned" based on the 75,000-year old South African megalithic ruins of Mpumalanga (a.k.a. Adam's Calendar) -- reputedly the oldest human-made structure in the world -- that charted the stars with a howler monkey watching guard over it; "World on a Camel's Back," a camel caravan trio with human figures atop their backs describing the travel habits of the Saharan peoples and "The Scorpion's Pass," based on the Berber myths of a monster scorpion who resides in a pass somewhere between Morocco and Mali and feeds on the flesh and blood of foolish or feverish travellers who come upon its domain, looks as scary as it all sounds.

The York University sculpture arts graduate does a mishmash of Timbuktu's famed Djinguerreber Mosque and the Great Mosque of Djenne for "A Sacred Place," made in tribute to the 15th-century places of worship with a futuristic and clean linear design and "Beware of the Bandit Queen of Walatah" composed of three figurines based on the legendary slave girl-turned-warrior thief, along with her twin daughters Princesses Ayesha and Ezi as master archers, are a strong tribute to African women leaders.

But the gigantic 2.7-square-meter sculpture located on the first floor in the museum's Permanent Gallery, "Kumbi Saleh 3020 C.E.," based on the Kingdom of Ghana's fortress capital which embodies the spirit of Afrofuturism and geometric measures that almost look like it was lifted from the set of a Blade Runner-meets-Black Panther film set that is the exhibit's most impressive and articulate, next to the "Bandit Queen" figurines.

It's best to see the Caravans of Gold exhibit first, as previously reviewed here; to see the proud civilizations of yesteryear Africa before engaging upon Building Black: Civilizations that hold the key to represent of what the continent could become of a hopefully brighter tomorrow.

EDITION #254 - WEEK OF FEBRUARY 3-9

Algorithms from the heart

Marjorie Prime (Coal Mine Theatre)

Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Avenue

Friday, January 31; 7:30 p.m.

Theatre Review

Most times science-fiction tells us to beware of how advanced technology might become to resemble erratic human behaviour, be it the likes of angsty androids from Alien, calculating computers from 2001: A Space Odyssey to the self-aware AI software of Her. With Marjorie Prime, playwright Jordan Harrison's Pulitzer Prize-nominated speculative-fiction dramedy poignantly reminds us that not only does such tech is in the here and now as a tool, but to gently bridge those gaps that connect ourselves of what it is to be fully human.

Set in the near-distant future, Marjorie (Martha Henry), an elderly widow has a hologram therapy program called Senior Serenity that resembles her late husband Walter (Gordon Hercht) by jogging her down memory lane of the good and bad, while her daughter Tess (Sarah Todd) and son-in-law Jon (Beau Dixon) are concerned if this program is a help or hindrance to putting off the inevitable of her state of mind and frail health, including their own relationship.

But don't be fooled by the simplicity of the production put on by the east-end Coal Mine Theatre Company -- now six years young -- as it goes on little by little with interesting revelations that go to the heart of the matter on about love, loss, mortality, memory and family in this intrepid 90-minute play directed by Stewart Arnott that addresses these issues as it does about technology.

Veteran actor Henry is a delight in bringing the aged Marjorie to life with a sense of humour and invulnerability of losing her mental and mobile faculties; Todd as the daughter still grappling with whatever parental issues she still has with her mother and her own life is the believable semi-volatile yin to Dixon's pragmatic yang to negotiate between the two of them is as honest and clear, as Hercht playing the binding glue to help all parties involved with logical reason.

While the theatre space is a bit cramped, the intimacy of it does suit the play well in the bachelor suite-like set design by Gillian Gallow and Nick Blais' futuristic lighting complimenting it and the ethereal SF score from Bram Gielen raises the multilayered Marjorie Prime 's emotional levels to their peak in getting us to reconnect our lost humanity again in these highly fast-paced times of unprecedented progress.

***

Marjorie Prime continues through February 23. For tickets and information, visit coalminetheatre.com or brownpapertickets.com

Black to the future

Afrofuturist artisan Yung Yemi's "When The Fam Lose Faith Holding Them Up" is a part of the KUUMBA Festival art exhibits celebrating a quarter-century this month at Harbourfront Centre.

KUUMBA Exhibits: Yung Yemi/Colin Kaepernick/William Ukoh

Venue: Bill Boyle Artport, York Quay Centre, 235 Queen's Quay West

Dates/Times: Through February 29; Daily 10 a.m.-9 p.m.

Admission/Information: FREE. Call 416-973-4000 or visit harbourfrontcentre.com/kuumba

Gallery Reviews

Part 1 of a 2-part series

Marking the twenty-fifth year of Harbourfront Centre's Black Heritage Month arts festival KUUMBA -- the longest running of its kind in Toronto and Canada -- brings in their strongest assembly of visual arts component yet, amongst the other events from theatre, film, comedy, dance and art forums running for the month of February; in a variety of themes from Afrofuturism to civil rights awareness in such broad mannerisms.

A couple of Nigerian-Canadians take the lead starting with the main one, Ascension Tech , a multimedia installation dominating the entire Marilyn Brewer Community Space venue at the William Boyle Artport, as put together by Yung Yemi (born Ademyemi Adegbesam) mostly consisting of digital photographs and partnering with other artists in the field of Afrofuturism that is more of an aesthetical level than what Black Panther did since popularizing it not too long ago.

A detail of the wall installation "Know Yourself," a collaborative effort with photographer Yung Yemi and dancer/choreographer Esie Mensah.

With his two works with dancer-choreographer Esie Mensah, who’s also worked with the likes of Rihanna, Drake and Arcade Fire; the four-minute dance video-looped Ascension Flow on a sunrise-drenched beach and the jumbo wall installation "Know Yourself" of a group of dancers in African fashions and cyber-tech gear on the same beach only in bright daylight both works as narratives of her Ghanaian heritage and his visionary stances.

Along with a few of his black-and-white solo pieces "Manni Water," "When The Fam Lose Faith Holding Them Up," "Blockin' Out The Noise That Destroys Black Boys" and another collaborative effort with fashion designer Asia Clarke "Yaa & Idia," his clean linear portraits of body piercings, tribal adornments, clothing and headgear give that otherworldly dimension yet so earthly grounded in their own meanings.

Sharing the same space is Clarke with her wearable artwork line-up that pays tribute to historical African women warriors "Ascension Flight Mask," "3rd Eye Channel Visor," "Yaa" and "Idia" standout for themselves directly and Malcolm-Emilio Yarde's "Visionary Crown" eccentrically blends a bit of old-school hip-hop headgear and stained-glass stars meant to convey about time travel.

Former NFL football star Colin Kaepernick, who stirred controversy by protesting against racism and police brutality against the African-American populace by kneeling during the national anthem as an act of civil disobedience (as well as stirring up a public debate on said subject alone); turns his secondary activist career into an art form with Wants You to Know Your Rights as a exclusive Canadian debut art installation in the West Garage Bays.

Footballer-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick presents the Canadian premiere of Wants You to Know Your Rights, that includes portraits of (left-right) "Taraji P. Henderson: You Have the Right to BE HEALTHY" and "Dr. Angela Davis: You Have the Right to BE BRILLIANT."

As a showcase of fellow community activists from his guest editor stint for the indie New York-based Paper Magazine , a series of ten portraits of figures in primary background colours from athletes to entertainers -- that reminds one of those old iPod ads over a decade ago -- taken by photographer Shawn Theodore with emboldened titles and quotes from "Eric Reid: You Have the Right to BE COURAGEOUS," "Taraji P. Henderson: You Have the Right to BE HEALTHY" to "Dr. Angela Davis: You Have the Right to BE BRILLIANT," among others.

But the one quote from that series that brings the most thought about African intellectualism and leadership is from actress Yara Shahidi, who says: "If everyone is taught to relate to an European or American leader, and not taught to engage with the rest of the world, then you're not taught to care about those people on the most intrinsic basis." A sound lesson for the current staple of world leaders who stand on the grounds of popularism, rather than on the collective societal good.

The Prism Effect series by Nigerian-Canadian artist William Ukoh taps on culture, environment and the experiences of migration through a immigrant's eyes.

And also in the West Garage Bays is William Ukoh's The Prism Effect , a formulation on culture, environment and the experiences of migration, as seen in his nine photo installations on colour, race, gender -- mostly women models -- and social values (along with its companion short video, Day 6), done in a variety of close-ups in tribal paints, fashions and hairstyles are sharply observant on the social habits from the vantage point of a immigrant artist works in his favour.

***

NEXT: Part 2 -- reviews on Ekow Nimako, D'Wayne Edwards and Krystal Ball.

EDITION #253 - WEEK OF JANUARY 27-FEBRUARY 2

African gold exhibit glitters with pride

Caravans of Gold: Fragments in Time

Venue: Aga Khan Museum, 77 Wynford Drive

Dates/Times: Through February 23; Tuesday, Thursday-Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Wednesday 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Holiday Monday (February 17) 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Admission/Information: Adult $20, Senior $15, Child (6-13) $10, Student $12, FREE Wednesdays 4-8 p.m.; Call 416-646-4677 or agakhanmuseum.org

Gallery Review

Africa was -- and, to a certain degree, is still -- a continent with riches beyond compare, taking into context that when Mansa Musa, ruler of the Mali Empire (present-day Mali) and by today's standards the richest person in history; in 1324 went on a pilgrimage to Mecca carrying about 136 kilograms of gold with his entourage and that being a highly generous man to a fault, on a stopover in Egypt he gave away so much of it that he devalued its street worth there for about twelve years.

The Aga Khan Museum's Caravans of Gold: Fragments in Time covers the medieval period of the West African and Saharan regions from the 8th to 15th centuries C.E. on the importance of the gold trade and spread of Islam that covered from southern Europe to the Far East is a fascinating exhibit in showing the wealth and influence it has had on the world that manages to hold sway of moulding the modern era.

In its first display are an array of gold dinars in a Plexiglas case, some tiny, some large; viewing both sides of the coins from the region minted between the 10th and 12th centuries and something else more worth its weight in gold: rock salt, which was equally as precious due to the lack of it in the desert regions for dietary measures. Then moving along are some highlight objects such as highly ordinate gold ring from 11th-century Egypt; a double-page leaf from the Blue Qu'ran of gold and silver on indigo parchment that once contained 600 folios that came from Iraq or Tunisia in the 9th to 10th century.

Other exhibit pieces that were embedded or applied with gold include a siddur (Jewish prayer book) from late 15th-century Portugal to a Italian panel painting of The Coronation of the Virgin to show the importance of trade and cooperation with all faiths and people. But, of course, not everything here is all gold-related except in the business of commerce and goods, such as excavated and well-preserved 15th-century Malian terracotta figures, clay pot fragments, beads and glass items from the northern edges of Mali and Morocco.

And proof that Africa trade did indeed penetrate the Asian markets, a flowery Foliate bowl with stylized peony decoration, Qinghai porcelain and silk fragments from China's 12th-century Northern Song Dynasty shown here are quite exquisite. For more recent stuff, check out some biconical beads and French-inspired earrings from Senegal's colonial period of the 19th to 20th centuries.

What happened to these golden empires of yesteryear is not hard to figure out their demises. Along with European colonialism throughout most of the continent and the transatlantic slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries, progress was a bit of the death knell for them. With the establishment of the Atlantic coastal trade with Europe and arrival of faster ships, plus the rise of the Asante Empire (present-day Ghana) from 1670 to 1957, the importance of trade routes in the Sahara pretty much evaporated at that point.

Caravans of Gold is a worthwhile exhibit to explore vastly advanced civilizations in their pre- and post-colonial eras, including a terracotta head from the Nigerian Nok culture of 1500 B.C.E-300 C.E. to the Tellum textiles found in Mali's Niger Delta of 11th-century indigo-dyed cottons and wools; in showing the proud heritage of African arts and technology.

Magical mushrooms and a brave pyrotechnic brightens Light Fest

Australian studio Amigo & Amigo bring their larger-than-life inflatable "Shrooms" at this year's Toronto Light Fest at the Distillery District.

Toronto Light Fest 2020 Review

Now entering its fourth year, the Distillery District's Toronto Light Fest keeps things more centralized and low-keyed within their area for this edition, yet it still manages to maintain its illuminating magic with some new light sculpture works from around the world to bring a little cheer in these long, dark nights of winter.

First and foremost are the two sculptures by the Australian artist studio Amigo & Amigo making their festival debut with "Sydmonauts" dominating most of the Trinity Street strip with eight orangey-coloured statues walk, float and fly about with abandon on the theme of space travel; and the indoor-situated "Shrooms," where fifteen inflatable and brightly colourful, multi-changing mushrooms -- meant to symbolize good luck -- brings the social nature of our urbanized environments, with many visitors taking selfies with, is clearly the festival favourite.

Nevada-based Chad Rice's forced perspective-cum-circular labyrinth sculpture "Turn Turn Turn" brings about looking at things in a different way, with two faces plastered on a series of steel pillars; is a constant throughout our lives and art itself is an ingenious piece; while the "Photonic Empathy" cuboid sculpture right underneath the "IT" sculpture in Gristmill Lane uses several rectangular volumetric constructs of multiple lights shimmering with a futuristic design, courtesy of the Netherlander group Lumus Instruments.

Left-right: The forced perspective-cum-circular labyrinth sculpture "Turn Turn Turn"; "Firefly Field" from the Netherlands and local pyrotechnic street performer Bex in Motion makes an appearance on a rainy night at the Toronto Light Fest.

Looking like a giant alien sunflower, Chad "Fez" Gaetz of the United States transplants the Fibonoccian geometric "Helianthus Enorm" is back with all its 3,500 LED lights in a psychedelic manner in its science-fiction theme and 8.5-metre height. From the creator of the permanent "Symbolic Peace" and "Perspective" pieces, Torontonian Studio Rosenblatt presents its latest sculpture "Life Puzzle," a 5.4-metre Ancient Egyptian Ankh symbol of life is a beauty to behold with its jigsaw puzzle-like die cast surface, much as it does question about the meaning of life it imposes on the viewer.

On the upper-end of Trinity Street are New Orleans' Lindsay Glatz + Curious Form's "Cloud Swing" which invites the viewer to get interactive in swinging on these cloud that illuminate when they do; the shell-emerging 7.9-metre "Mariposita" by Chris Carnabuci is fascinating as it is intimidating about escaping confinement and breaking through to a more meaningful and enlightening existence and smack dab on the lower end of the street is Britain's Squidsoup LED light stringy "Submergence" where one can get immersed within is kind of dizzying yet dazzling at the same time.

Left-right: Amigo & Amigo's "Sydmonauts" tribute to star travellers past, present and future with Britain's Squidsoup LED light stringy "Submergence" (background ) and Torontonian Studio Rosenblatt presents its new sculpture "Life Puzzle" at the Toronto Light Fest.

"Everything Everywhere Forever" is a collaborative effort by Canadian ensemble Lumatronic, 4tress Fabrication and Olivia Coombe as they suspend an arc of multicoloured lights bridged between two buildings about light and energy here has its symbolic aesthetic together; "Florescentia" by Australian artists Zara Pafield and Renzo B. Larriviere has three glowing flowers that open and close on a rotational basis based on chlorophyll fluorescence, while "Firefly Field" from the Netherlander group Toer is a low-lying illusionary installation of self-dancing "firefly" lights is pretty-looking and simple in construct on Tank House Lane.

Perhaps the most impressive thing that I witnessed, as viewing all this on a not-so particularly nice evening, was this lone local pyrotechnic street performer Rebecca Zelewicz a.k.a. Bex in Motion who somehow managed to put on a decent fire juggling and hula-hoop act in the pouring rain to a scant, but braver crowd that watched in her appreciation of her craftwork and talent. Sometimes it is the people and their efforts that shine brighter than the sculptures themselves.

***

Toronto Light Fest 2020 runs through March 1 at the Distillery District (between Parliament and Cherry Streets) Thursday-Saturday sundown to 10 p.m. and Sunday-Wednesday sundown to 9 p.m.. Admission is FREE. For more information, visit torontolightfestival.com

EDITION #252 - WEEK OF JANUARY 20-26

Doolittle remake does little to entertain

Doolittle (Universal)

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent

Director: Stephan Gaghan

Producers: Susan Downey and Jeff Kerchenbaum

Screenplay: Stephan Gaghan, Dan Gregor and Doug Mand; screen story by Thomas Shepherd; based on the 1920 The Story of Doctor Doolittle character by Hugh Lofting

Film Review

Goodness knows there hasn't been a Doctor Doolittle film in such a long time since Eddie Murphy did those back-to-back contemporary versions a couple of decades ago. And while certainly the cinematic technology has changed from that period and even to the original 1967 Rex Harrington film in making anthropomorphic animals onscreen believable, it's hard to believe that they couldn't have made a better one with, of all people, Robert Downey Jr. for the simply titled, Doolittle.

Back in its Victoria-era England period, the good veterinarian-adventurer (Downey Jr.) with the uncanny talent of understanding various animal languages, has withdrawn from society and living a hermit-like existence within the walls of his sanctuary and his furry and feathered friends since losing his beloved wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak) at sea years ago.

His seclusion comes to a rather abrupt end when two unexpected visitors: the first being Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a sensitive youngster who accidentally shot a squirrel (voice of Craig Robinson) and guided by Doolittle's macaw confidant Polly (voice of Emma Thompson) to heal him and yearns to become his apprentice after watching him work.

The other visitor, Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), a young royal lady-in-waiting under Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), arrives at the same time to get Doolittle to save the monarch who has suddenly fallen ill with the possible threat of having his Crown-appointed home be snatched and everyone evicted if she dies. Arriving at Buckingham Palace and doing a quick diagnosis, courtesy of his canine analyst Jip (voice of Tom Holland), he must venture to the South Seas to find the mythical Eden Tree whose fruit can provide the cure.

With Tommy as his potential student and their fellow animal companions in tow, Doolittle is hounded (no pun intended) by the Queen's personal physician Dr. Blair Mudfly (Sheen), a jealous med school days rival and Lord Thomas Badgley (Broadbent), an ambitious politico out to sabotage his efforts, including one King Rassouli of Monteverde (Banderas) with a personal grudge against him; among other dangers along the way.

Doolittle feels bogged down with the case of too many screenwriters, including director Stephan Gaghan (Traffic; Syriana), spoiling the proverbial soup of a script with an weak and uneven plot that doesn't feel entertaining in the least despite the reshoots made for it and is far removed from Hugh Lofting's classic children's books, even when they're trying to make it work.

The over-reliant weight of cutesy CGI animals providing the slapstick relief for the most part tends to cramp Downey Jr.'s natural-born eccentricity to play the part as their protector/healer/therapist, provided he wasn't phoning it in with an oddly Scottish burr here. Buckley's tender-hearted Tommy and a slew of celeb vocal talents -- from Rami Malek as the phobic gorilla Chee-Chee, John Cena's polar bear Yoshi with temperature issues to Octavia Spencer as smart-talking duck Dab-Dab -- do their best but it's not enough to save it, plus Sheen makes for a rather vacuous antagonist.

Banderas' all-too brief role as the tropical pirate king, composer Danny Elfman's handsome score and the gorgeous animated prologue (why couldn't they have made the whole film like that??) are Doolittle 's only bright spots of this unpolished and clunky family fantasy/adventure that might keep the younger kids amused a bit but will wear thin with others after awhile.

Pop Art icon returns to AGO with new blockbuster exhibit

Warhol retrospective in 2021 focuses on the personal, social and political viewpoint of his artwork

Arts Feature

For the first time in almost 25 years, a new major Andy Warhol blockbuster touring exhibit returns to the Art Gallery of Ontario, as organized by the Tate Modern, London in collaboration with the AGO and the Dallas Museum of Art, just entitled Andy Warhol features loans from museums and private collections in Europe and North America that will roll into Toronto in March 2021.

As probably the most recognized Pop Art artist in history -- and the better half of the twentieth century -- Warhol forever changed the way we look at commercial art be it as a commentary or satire of society's consumerist culture and celebrity worship that spanned four decades from the 1950s as a New York shopping window dresser early in his career until his death in 1987, in his experimentations with multimedia, music, live performance and publishing at his famous Factory art studio.

Being a openly gay artist who grew up in industrial Pittsburgh, the exhibit will do a specific focus on his sexual politics that will include a selection of early male nudes the artist drew in the 1950s, the 1963 film Sleep that starred his then-lover, the poet John Giorno and his 1975 series of paintings "Ladies and Gentleman," which memorializes members of New York City's transgender community.

"Ladies and Gentlemen" from London's Tate Modern exhibit Andy Warhol on display, coming to Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario next March.

As well as his Pop period to be shown from the "Marilyn Diptych" (1962) from Tate Modern, "100 Campbell's Soup Cans" (1962) from the Museum fur Moderne Kunst of Frankfurt to the AGO's own collection of "Elvis I and II" (1963/4), special never-before-seen works will be on display that will combine film projections, strobe lighting, audience participation and the sounds of his legendary experimental rock group The Velvet Underground, Warhol's psychedelic multimedia environment "Exploding Plastic Inevitable" (1966) will be restaged for the exhibition, as will an installation of his floating metallic pillows entitled "Silver Clouds."

Also, a fully-illustrated catalogue -- including an interview with Factory insider Bob Colacello, an artist response by Martine Syms, a new text by Olivia Laing and an essay on Warhol's "Silver Clouds" by AGO Associate Curator of Modern Art Kenneth Brummel, who is overseeing the installation at the gallery -- will accompany the exhibition as published by the Tate Modern and will be available in the shopAGO store come early 2020.

"Warhol came into the art world from the outside," stated Brummel. "And while his Pop works of the 1960s are the most famous, Warhol's engagement with issues of identity, belief and desire in the '50s, '70s and '80s is as relevant and contemporary now as it was in the late twentieth century."

***

Further details to be announced over the next few months. For more information, visit ago.net.

EDITION #251 - WEEK OF JANUARY 13-19

A Farewell to (a Prog Rock) King

Comic Strip Tribute

Neil Peart 1952-2020

"We're only immortal for a limited time."

- "Dreamline" from Rush's Roll the Bones, 1991

Neil Peart, the genius percussionist/lyricist who sat behind the drum kit and became part of the iconic Canadian progressive rock god trio Rush for 40 of their 42 years in existence (and personally have seen twice in performance); quietly passed away on January 7 after a three-and-a-half year battle with brain cancer. In tribute, the Hounds of Love castmembers presents this medley salute to the Torontonian Rock and Roll Hall of Famer -- known as The Professor -- behind classic hits "The Spirit of Radio," "2112 Overture/The Temples of Syrinx" and "Subdivisions."

Super Women

The Solitudes (Aluna Theatre/Nightwood Theatre/Harbourfront Centre)

Harbourfront Centre Theatre, 231 Queen's Quay West

Friday, January 10; 8 p.m.

Theatre Review

On a loose inspiration from the Gabriel Garcia Marquez masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, Aluna Theatre founder/Artistic Director/writer/director Beatriz Pizano puts an extensive feminist twist on it for The Solitudes for a treatise on survival in a patriarchal society in edgy performances celebrating the (near-) universal experiences of womanhood that never lets up or lets go.

Nine women gather onstage together from all walks of life from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas to discuss a multitude of experiences in regard to their histories, relationships, the power of creation, childhood, motherhood, sex, exile, hardships, systematic femicide and genocide and triumphs in a series of ensemble and monologue pieces, dance numbers and song stretching from the dramatic to humour.

True, it's been done before in feminist theatre from for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf to The Vagina Monologues to name a couple, but there too are disagreements, where in one moment two ladies debate on female genital mutilation (FGM) on whether it's a socio-cultural norm or the stripping of a woman's control over her sexuality. And there's another telling moment when one woman recalling after being raped in her teens, is reassured by a wise doctor that her virginity is something one gives away willingly and can't ever be stolen from her, as a stepping stone to recovery.

The cast of Lara Arabian, Brefny Caribou, Janis Mayers, Rosalba Martinni, Michelle Polak, Sofia Rodriguez, Rhoma Spencer and Liliana Suarez, who also contributed to the play's text; all put on a brilliant showcase in countering whatever negativity in their personal lives has brought to them all together.

For a provocative and energetic 95 minutes, The Solitudes delves into the complexities of being a woman for a proud, provocative and energetic 95 minutes on Trevor Schellnus' inventive set design and minimalist video projections, Rebecca Vandevelde's lighting works and the soundtrack by Brandon Miguel Valdivia has that dark, ethereal touch to the sharp direction and whip-smart script Pizano's testimony on female empowerment that won't be lost on the post-MeToo audiences of the now.

***

The Solitudes continues through Saturday (January 18). For tickets and information, phone 416-973-4000 or visit nightwoodtheatre.net or alunatheatre.ca

PROGRESS reaches five years of winter indie theatre

British creator/performer Scottee brings his acclaimed one-man show on poverty and societial divisions, Class for the PROGRESS Festival this winter.

Multidisciplinary Queen Street West arts fest warms up for its half-decade milestone

Theatre Preview

Started as a winter extension of the highly-popular summer independent theatre festival SummerWorks -- plus, making for a great antidote to seasonal cabin fever -- the PROGRESS Festival progresses into its fifth year for its two-week stint January 30-February 15 with returning curators FADO Performance Art Centre, SummerWorks Performance Festival, The Theatre Centre and Why Not Theatre and welcomes newcomers the Broadleaf Theatre, DopoLavoro Teatrale from Italy and RT Collective to bring on the current topics on most minds of late -- class structure, economic collapse and climate crises -- to Torontonian stages, as well as opening and closing parties, film, literature and community meal events.

"We are extremely excited to be celebrating our fifth milestone for PROGRESS this year," says SummerWorks Performance Festival Artistic and Managing Director Laura Nanni. "With each edition of the Festival, we have continued to see the value of showcasing innovative international work alongside the work of Canadian artists working at the edge of performance practice -- it is critical in advancing the community locally."

"There is a cross-pollination of vital discussions and ideas about what performance can be that happens in bringing artists together from around the globe," says Theatre Centre General and Artistic Director Aislinn Rose. "It is very rewarding to see PROGRESS finding its place and becoming a pillar within a global network of contemporary performance."

The award-winning bluemouth inc. interactive hit Cafe Sarajevo (January 30-February 2) returns by popular demand exploring the borders that divide and unite us, within the framework of a live podcast; packed 2018 SummerWorks audiences on creator Lucy Simic's visit to her paternal ancestral home of Bosnia and its recovery since the end of the Yugoslav Wars almost three decades ago through story, dance, game, music 360-degree video -- and by casting the audience as characters in the story -- becomes a thoughtful exploration about nationalism, racial bias and postwar tourism.

FADO Performance Art Centre's The Marble in the Basement (January 30-February 1) is creator/performer Hazel Meyer contemplating the weight of inheritance and an artist's legacy when she was gifted with a ton of marble scraps that once belonged to influential Canadian experimental filmmaker Joyce Wieland back in 2016 and Screen:Moves (February 3) is a one-day program of original short dance films and videos created by artists from Canada and around the world featuring narrative, experimental, comedic and animated works from a diverse range of dance styles and traditions.

bluemouth inc.'s 2018 SummerWorks smash Cafe Sarajevo returns for a run during the PROGRESS Festival.

Acclaimed visual artist Antonella Bersani builds an immersive environment with the help of the audience with the experimental Affioramenti (Surfacing) (February 5-9), courtesy of the DopoLavoro Teatrale. Here, six participants are invited to bring an object of significance to their life and place it within the space. Then, they will offer to the room both their object and a vocal expression related to the object they place that afterwards the audience will emerge from a "world of ghosted objects."

American troupe Doubleleaf Theatre is the double-bill This World Made Itself and Infinitely Yours (February 6-7), This World Made Itself is a visually and musically-rich surrealistic dream journey through the history of the Earth from the universe's epic beginnings to the complex world of humanity through animation and shadow puppetry; whereas the eco-themed Infinitely Yours digs into meditation on global warming and the Anthropocene -- the proposed current era where human influence has affected almost all realms of earth's natural systems -- the complex harm humanity causes to the planet and what it might mean for all of us as a species.

Belgian-based Korean artist Jaha Koo takes audiences on a bittersweet journey through the last two decades of Korean history, told by a bunch of talkative rice cookers, in Cuckoo (February 7-9) going back to the economic meltdown South Korea experienced that rippled throughout Asian stock markets, leaving a generation of young Koreans to undergo unemployment to socio-economic inequality; and a participatory workshop on the politics of capacity and resource sharing, How I Learned to Serve Tea (February 13-15) explores dynamics of power through acts of hospitality with artist-facilitator Shaista Latif.

Jan Derbyshire's Certified (February 13-15) is a hilarious and heart-aching one-woman memoir-play through the mental health system that cracks open the stigma around mental health based on the West Coaster's experience of being certifiably insane -- a total of eight times -- and how she got to where she is today; and Class (February 13-15) from England processes the issues around domestic violence, food addiction and the effects of growing up in abject poverty in British social housing for 31 years, as personally experienced by creator/performer Scottee, which includes a part-show/part-discussion/part-meal Working Class Dinner Party event (February 11).

PROGRESS performances are enhanced by community meals on February 5 and 12 at 1-2 p.m.; Coach House Books collaborates with the festival on February 5 to present a book launch of Amanda Leduc's Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space and will be bookended by an Opening Night reception following the performances on January 30 and a Closing Night Party on February 15.

***

Tickets now on sale. For more information, phone 416-538-0988 or visit progressfestival.org

EDITION #250 - WEEK OF DECEMBER 23-29, 2019

Cats meows itself into mediocrity

Cats (Universal)

Cast: Taylor Swift, Francesca Hayward, Idris Alba, Judi Dench

Director: Tom Hooper

Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward and Tom Hooper

Screenplay: Lee Hall and Tom Hooper; based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot

Film Review

Whether you loved or hated the musical that clearly defined the 1980s and its longevity since, Cats , which went through one of the longest development hell for the big screen treatment; is a half-hearted attempt to capture Andrew Lloyd Webber's theatrical magic of the stage it wove -- I, personally, have seen and love the stage version -- despite it having a few big names working along with the lesser-known in cast and crew and somehow not reaching its fullest potential.

Unceremoniously abandoned in a London alleyway, Victoria (Hayward) emerges from the bag and is surrounded by a cornucopia of stray and not-so stray felines calling themselves the Jellicle Cats. She has just arrived in time for the annual Jellicle Ball where on this night one of them will be taken to the Heaviside Layer -- a cat heaven of sorts -- to be reincarnated to a much better life than their previous one, as presided by Old Deuteronomy (Dench), the wisest amongst them.

Not knowing what to make of this newcomer to their territory either, Victoria is introduced to this world of eclectic personalities all vying to be the chosen one ranging from the plump domesticated Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), illusionist Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), the ever-gluttony Bustopher Jones (James Corden) and the thespian Gus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellen). The only poison pill running around to crash this party is the nasty cat criminal, Macavity (Elba), who will stop at nothing to be the one that enters the Heaviside Layer this time. Along the way, Victoria meets Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), a downtrodden victim of misfortune and former ally of Macavity now cast-off by everyone; whom her heart goes out to.

Director/co-screenwriter Hooper (Les Miserables; The King's Speech) alters the original storyline of the musical a bit and re-imagines it to the level of a cat's perspective, (hence the CGI-shrunk and digitalized feline renderings on the cast that has been the polarizing talk since its first trailer release), seemed like a good ideal on paper at the time. And despite some set pieces, numbers, pace and humour that work, like one example the Bustopher Jones bit; it tends to get off-putting in its ambitious scale.

Royal Ballet principal dancer Hayward is one of the brighter spots here in her moves, song and performance, as well as Dench -- who had the chance to play Grizabella years ago at the West End premiere of Cats , but bowed out after her Achilles tendon snapped before opening night -- as the wizen Old Deuteronomy that is so suited for this role now. Taylor Swift as Bombalurina puts on a glitzy show, especially when she intros the villian's theme song, yet her role is limited, including Wilson's watery effort being a comic relief but at least she can carry a tune.

It's also a shame that Hudson, a talented singer and actor in her own right; can't pull off a convincing Grizabella or even add any heart-felt punch to the musical's centrepiece song "Memory" or Elb's villainous Macavity could have been more comical. And can anybody explain to why such a distinguished actor like McKellen is wasting his time here?

But in all fairness, there are some stellar stuff from Corden, Davidson's Mr. Mistoffelees, the cat burglars Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Danny Collins, Naoimh Morgan) and Steven McRae tap-dancing his way into the hearts as the railway cat Skimbleshanks better than those tap-dancing cockroaches (really, don't ask); the excellent choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler who also designed the same Tony Award-winning moves for the onstage Hamilton and -- as a tradition with any Lloyd Webber musical film adapt -- the master tunesmith and co-star Swift craft a highly listenable new song for the film, "Beautiful Ghosts," as another bright point here and Oscar material.

While it would be grossly cliched to suggest seeing the much better onstage musical than this film version, Cats could have been a nobler effort if it were made on an even-levelled perspective than a shrunk-down one and had come out when it was still a hot commodity as it kind of now feels like a musical of its era, only with an still evergreen and buoyant soundtrack to accompany with it.

Meditative antiwar melodrama

A Hidden Life (Fox Spotlight)

Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Karin Neuhauser

Writer/Director: Terrence Malick

Producers: Elizabeth Bentley, Dario Bergesio, Grant Hill and Josh Jeter

Film Review

One of the few American maverick auteurs still working the game by his own rules, Terrence Malick presents the World War II-era melodrama A Hidden Life , based on the real-life Austrian conscience objector and beatified Catholic martyr Franz Jagerstatter (Diehl); another of his lengthy contemplative cinematic pieces rich in thought and vision as done previously in The Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line.

An unsung hero almost lost to history, Jagerstatter was a simple farmer living a content and complete life in his mountainous village in the Austrian Alps with devoted wife Fani (Pachner), their three young daughters, his widowed mother and singleton sister-in-law Resie (Simon) until he is called for duty in 1939 under a direct order that all Austrian men of fighting age must swear allegiance to the Nazi German forces.

On an extended leave after France surrenders to Germany, Franz is convinced he'll not be asked to return since his unit was undergoing basic training and they had a sufficient roster of soldiers, but life in his village is not the same since as some of residents are caught up in the propaganda believing that Hitler's cause is a just one as his armies march across Europe.

When he's called back in 1943 as the war drags on, Franz, who is haunted by memories of his biological father who perished in the trenches during the First World War; makes the hard choice of either going back to fight or stand up for his principles that brand him as a traitor and carries the death penalty, plus the ostracization that befalls on his loved ones for his actions.

As dark as the film's storyline is (writer-director Malick never does Hollywood fluff), A Hidden Life -- which both won the Francois Chalais and Ecumenical Jury prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival -- is also a love story between Franz and Fani trying to discover the gift of resilience and acts as a treatise about blind patriotism and faith by extremist forces, that aren't a loss in our current state of the world; tends to wander at times yet remains masterly done through in a series of flashbacks and archival footage of the Nazis rise to power.

Working with a casting pool of relative unknowns, with a few exceptions like Jurgen Prochnow and Bruno Ganz and Michael Nyqvist both in their final roles here; Malick pull of lot of gravitas out of Diehl (who had been seen in Inglourious Basterds) and Pachner undergoing the unimaginable, both together and alone, which should get them some notice come major awards season. Even the short, if stunningly eerie, performances of Karl Markovic playing the boozy village mayor who lives to spew nationalistic venom to a froth to Johan Leysen's deeply philosophical church painter foreseeing a very dark future ahead.

Combined with the usual aesthetic camera eye enhanced by cinematographer Jorg Widmer alongside the emotional score composed by James Newton Howard, Malick explores in the nearly three-hour running time on A Hidden Life 's complex antiwar meditative about existence, nonconformity and self-sacrifice during a time of madness one should give question on morality, as a sympathetic villager laments to the film's protagonist: "Don't they know evil when they see it?"

EDITION #249 - WEEK OF DECEMBER 17-22, 2019

A plucky and folksy Peter Pan purely delights

Peter Pan (Bad Hats Theatre/Soulpepper Theatre)

Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane

Friday, December 13; 7 p.m.

Theatre Review

For the past three years, the Port Perry-based Bad Hats Theatre troupe have been performing their Dora-winning adaptation of the beloved J.M. Barrie fantasy-musical Peter Pan under Soulpepper Theatre's roof as part of their holiday schedule and it's a pure delight for the young and young at heart.

As told through the perspective of a narrator (Matt Pilipiak), the story unfolds in the Darling household where youngsters Wendy (Gabriella Albino), John (Victor Pokinko) and Michael (Landon Doak) are visited by the playful sprite Peter Pan (Fiona Sauder) and sidekick fairy Tinkerbell (Reanne Spitzer) one night in their nursery and are promised an adventure of his home in far-off Neverland awaiting for them.

Upon arrival they meet up with Peter's band of brothers The Lost Boys with Wendy unexpectedly becoming their den mother figure to these wayward orphans, plus encountering his arch-nemesis Captain Hook (Paolo Santalucia), first mate Mr. Smee (also Pilipiak) and their motley crew of pirates determined to hunt them down through swashbuckling escapades and flights of fancy.

Director Severn Thompson helms an organic and kinetic 75-minute production arranged with a uniquely folksy score composed by Landon Doak and using minimal props under Ken Mackenzie's lighting design within the medium confines of the 90-degree seating of the Michael Young Theatre venue that is more than fitting for this Peter Pan to keep the magic all bundled within that would, otherwise, lose its charm in a larger space.

Saunder as the titular man-boy hero is a plucky and wonderfully mischievous role for her while exploring the undiscovered side of Pan grappling with personal maternal issues; Albino's Wendy holds that balancing act of keeping her girlish ways and blossoming on the cusp of adolescence while Spitzer's Tinkerbell mixing fairy gibberish and English is fun watching, Pilipiak earns credit juggling between the duo role of narrator and the faithful minion Mr. Smee -- as do the other cast members doing multiple roles here -- and Santalucia's giddily plum role as the dastardly Hook is the best one I've seen in many years (so sorry, Ross Petty).

The pre-show jam session and interacting with the youngsters in the audience, which include mattress-like seating for them along the stage area; are nice touches for this highly original concept of Peter Pan in its (slightly) faithful tale about childhood and remaining childlike whatever age you are. High recommended.

***

Peter Pan continues through January 5. For tickets and information, phone 416-866-8666 or visit soulpepper.ca or badhatstheatre.com

Anne of Green Gables trades lace-up boots for pointe shoes

The beloved Can-Lit icon goes en pointe for Torontonian audiences next summer

Dance Preview

She's had her own books, films, three sets of miniseries, a play, a musical and even a theme park or two (in Japan -- for real) and now the spirited auburn heroine of Prince Edward Island gets another reinterpretation that will include pirouettes and en pointes when Canada's Ballet Jorgen (CBJ) brings their critically-acclaimed production of Anne of Green Gables -- The Ballet at the St. Lawrence Centre (27 Front Street East) for a limited four-date engagement of July 24-26, 2020.

Through the cooperation of the heirs of Lucy Maud Montgomery, via the Anne of Green Gables Licensing Authority Inc. of Charlottetown and in partnership with the heirs of Norman Campbell and Don Harron, who created the still-popular 1965 musical version, the ballet made its world premiere in September 28 of this year in Halifax for two smash sold-out performances with Symphony Nova Scotia, as originally scored by Campbell; and has since garnered equal praise on its North American stints in Markham, Quebec and the United States.

The ballet will transport audiences to early 20th-century rural Prince Edward Island that follows the adventures of the orphaned teenage Anne Shirley who is sent to live on a farm run by an elderly spinster and her brother in the fictional town of Avonlea and manages to bring her infectious charm and brightness into their lives and everyone else she encounters. Created by Lucy Maud Montgomery in 1908 and the subsequent series that followed, the character has been, for over 111 years, a Can-Lit icon and a national treasure.

Currently on a brief holiday hiatus while CBJ conducts its Ontario-wide tour of The Nutcracker: A Canadian Tradition (which will finish with three Toronto performances on January 3-4), Anne of Green Gables -- The Ballet tour will resume on January 12 with further performances across Ontario, Western Canada, Atlantic Canada and a few more American stops before coming to the Bluma Appel Theatre.

"Anne of Green Gables -- The Ballet has received incredible audience responses across Canada and the United States since it premiered in September," said ballet choreographer/Artistic Director/CEO/company founder Bengt Jorgen, "and I believe we have created a ballet that all Canadians can be proud of. This is the largest tour in the company's history and we are excited to be able to share it with Toronto audiences in the summer of 2020."

***

Tickets now on sale. For more information, phone 416-366-7723 or visit ticketmaster.ca, stlc.com or canadasballetjorgen.ca

EDITION #248 - WEEK OF DECEMBER 9-15, 2019

Twisty Robin Hood panto a holiday charmer

Lil' Red Robin Hood: The Family Musical That Targets Your Funny Bone (Ross Petty Productions)

Winter Garden Theatre, 189 Yonge Street

Friday, December 6; 7 p.m.

Theatre Review

For its twenty-third holiday pantomime, Ross Petty Productions revamps the old standby Robin Hood with a twist for Lil' Red Robin Hood: The Family Musical That Targets Your Funny Bone and, for the first time in the company's history, takes the show from its usual home at the Elgin Theatre to its sister site upstairs at the Winter Garden Theatre (mostly to accommodate the current run of Come From Away residing there). Regardless of the smaller venue size, the show never runs out of laughs or energy for all ages.

Opening at a high school in present-day Toronto, the bookish Lil' Red (Robert Markus) is bright yet timid student with a low esteem who finds his chances of getting into university are mighty slim. With keen sense for history, he gets magically sucked into his locker and time travels back to 1519 in Sherway Gardens Forest.

Running into the plucky Maid Marion (AJ Bridel) and her nurse Sugarbum (Michael de Rose), his timing couldn't be any worse (?) as the despotic Sheriffe of Naughtyham (Sara-Jeanne Hosie) has put a blanket ban on education by locking up the teachers -- Marion is the last free one -- and seizing all the books in the Seven Queendoms so she can become the smartest person that ever lived; Marion and Robin Hood (Lawrence Libor) are taking a break from their relationship that has split up the Merry Folk and on top of all that, the Sheriffe has accidentally gained possession of Lil' Red's research paper on world history which could threaten future events from happening, including his way back home.

Matt Murray's script gives the old British folklore a fresh and contemporary feel replete with parodies, a commentary on educational cuts and the usual veiled political pot-shots (what, nothing on Brexit?) on Cory Sincennes' dazzling set design and Michael Gianfrancesco's sparkly costuming (Hosie totally rocks out in her glam outfit, as she does wonderfully hams it up as the bad gal) that hasn't been seen in a Petty panto for a while.

While the all the cast members put in their best effort in timing, musical numbers and tight dance moves courtesy of long-time director/choreographer Tracey Flye, there are times that the pacing gets a little too fast to catch the jokes, but when the times that the pop culture quips and little innuendoes nails it, it's a good mix all around.

First-timers to the Petty stage Markus and actual Nottingham export Libor show off their light-hearted sides and vulnerabilities very well; as vets Eddie Glen -- back for his 17th great year as the suffering lackey sidekick role as the Sherrife's magician Marvin, plus gets his first-ever musical solo number -- Bridel, De Rose and Daniel Williston, who both make a hot yearning couple, with the latter as Friar Tuck, are hilarious. Other than it should take a slower pace, Lil' Red Robin Hood is quite the family charmer for the holiday season.

***

Lil' Red Robin Hood continues through January 4. For tickets and information, phone 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333 or visit rosspetty.com or ticketking.com

Horror fan collection taps into primal fears

The fictional Zapatron electron charger gizmo that's been seen in countless Frankenstein films is among the hundreds of items of the touring exhibit It's Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection.

It's Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection

Venue: Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queen's Park

Dates/Times: Through January 5; Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5:30p.m.; December 21-January 5 Holiday hours Monday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (closed December 25)

Admission/Information: Adult $31.00, Child $18, Seniors (65+)/Students/Youth (15-19) $24. Call 416-586-8000 or rom.on.ca

Gallery Review

Since he the day he turned on the TV on a by-chance viewing of the British B-movie monster classic The Day of The Triffids at the age of five, future heavy metal axeman Kirk Hammett became a horror film fan at first sight and a lifelong collector of all things science-fiction and horror, even launching his own annual fan convention Kirk Von Hammett's Fear FestEvil. The Metallica lead guitarist now shares his passion in the touring It's Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum's Roloff Beny Gallery.

But this is no ordinary pop cultural collection of rare and obscure artwork, posters, lobby cards, film set props and costumes from the 1920s to '70s, mind you. There is an seriousness to its arrangement and curation behind all this, as well as a inspiration for the Grammy-winning Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's music that guided him throughout his career with Metallica and solo work, which includes a eight-minute video and a collection of horror-themed guitars personally made for him over the years.

Speaking as someone who doesn't like horror films -- with the major exception of the Alien franchise -- there's a respected understanding of why people like the cinematic genre other than to get scared witless. Horror oftentimes reflects whatever collective anxiety, social issues and/or mores of the day it addresses, be it a cautionary tale, propaganda or even a satire over such fear(s) that it touches.

And Hammett knows his art. Getting an eyeful of selected pieces from his personal collection like Basil Goyos' original acrylic paintings that graced the covers of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine throughout the 1960s and '70s to the influential Frank Frazetta in one such example his 1967 acrylic on illustration board "The Berserker" for the original cover for Conan the Conqueror sways a lot of drama and action.

There's also focus on Karoly Grosz, a well-known pre-World War II poster artist who was the art director for Universal Studios, during their monster mash-up period of the Great Depression releases of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man and such; where his lithographs and topography layouts would make their mark on horror film promotion for decades to come.

Heavy metal legend Kirk Emmett proudly shows off his horror and science-fiction memorabilia at the ROM for the first Canadian viewing of It's Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection exhibit.

Other than just straightaway visuals, there is artistic value as seen in a 1922 Polish film poster of their version of Hamlet by Franz Peffer as he composites a full black background engulfing an androgynous (if spooky-looking) Tragic Dane and chalky script is a effectively good one; the restrained colours and elegant lines of 1933's The Ghoul that oddly looks contemporary now as it did then to the German Expressionist touch put on the 1920 film version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a rare usage of periodical art movement technique, as much as it does for its innovative distortional effect by Lionel Reiss, who would also go on to create the iconic MGM Lion.

Moving onto the postwar horror fare like The Blob, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of The Body Snatchers that addressed Cold War shadows of Communism, nuclear weapons, xenophobia disguised as possible alien invasions and the rise of youth culture via something call rock 'n' roll (how fitting, since this all this stuff comes from a heavy metal god), the exhibit does have a light side with showing a horror-comedy poster Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein (and the countless follow-ups), selling horror-theme toys to kids and a clip of the Duck and Cover film as seen on a refurbished old-style television set.

A couple of posters from Roman Polanski's earlier works of the 1966 thriller Repulsione (Repulsion)'s multicoloured starkness and the uncomfortable subtlety of the supernatural lurking in 1969's Rosemary's Baby as created by Stephan Owen Frankfurt and Philip Gips' offset lithography and usage of infinite space that they would later recreate a decade later for the space horror masterpiece Alien that still looks foreboding forty years since its release with the best tagline ever written for its genre: "In space no one can hear you scream."

Plus, there's a thoughtful retrospective on the depiction of women in the horror genre as stereotypical seductresses or scanty-clad damsels-in-distress in the artwork, including a poster of the Jane Fonda 1968 SF sexploitation cult chestnut Barbarella, which now has earned a female empowerment and feminist perspective on the changing roles of women in society at that moment.

And to show how much that first film effected Hammett so much, he's even got an original artwork piece by Joseph Smith of the man-eating plants that freaked him out as a kid, done in gouache on illustration board against a stark-white background on display here. The exhibit really shows the artistry and appreciation done to tap into those primal fears that prey on us for the sake of entertainment.

EDITION #247 - WEEK OF NOVEMBER 24-DECEMBER 1, 2019

Sisters of the shutterbug set

A detail of photographer Yto Barrada's "Girl in Red, Tangiers" about transient life make up part of the female experience in the Ryerson Image Centre exhibit The Way She Looks.

The Way She Looks: A History of Female Gazes in African Portraiture

Venue: Ryerson Image Centre, 33 Gould Street

Dates/Times: Through December 8; Tuesday, Thursday-Friday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Wednesday 11 a.m.-8 p.m. and Weekends 12-5 p.m.

Admission/Information: FREE. Call 416-979-5164 or ryersonimagecentre.ca

Gallery Review

Throughout history, women of African descent have been subjected at times most unfairly as the example of objectification to whatever ideal example of beauty and genetic makeup from pre-colonialism to the present, despite the corrective beliefs and counter-arguments developed since the late 20th-century. From the holdings of the Walther Collection, Ryerson Image Centre's outstanding The Way She Looks: A History of Female Gazes in African Portraiture exhibit, as curated by Sandrine Colard; brings in a further and more in-depth perspective from models and photographers alike that doesn't get much everyday viewing.

Shown in two parts, the first half entitled The Modern Studio shows the origins of African photography from the average, humble portrait studios that flourished across the continent in the last century where the subject was in control of their own image in a era where colonialism was on the wane that they didn't have to submit to any Eurocentric code that were mainly male-dominated except for a couple of women, like pioneering photographers Felicia Abban and Sue Williamson here, made the grade as well as the pictures.

While South African S.J. Moodley captures the lightly silly ("Woman wearing lampshade as hat") to downright serious ("Two women wearing Western attire"); his fellow colleague Williamson has her colourful collage series A Few South Africans from the 1980s in apartheid's last decade as tributes to the legendary singer-activist Miriam Makeba and political figure Lillian Ngoyi at their majestic and dignified stances.

Nigerian J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere's 1974-75 Hairstyle series of untitled black-and-white gelatin silver prints of sculptured hairdos with the lighting techniques seen in show the true artistry and inventiveness of braided African hair and Malians Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe stick with traditional tribal print textiles and Western clothing balances in their portrait work with a high sense of the aesthetic.

South African photo artist Lebohang Kganye uses superimposition technique alongside her late mother in her Ke Lifa Laka/Her Story series on memory and motherhood.

The second half, Self Possessed , has the majority of female artists in the exhibit that proliferated since the 1990s, as well as reflecting the postcolonial Africa that are willing to tackle on tougher and sometimes even personal subjects that would have been unthinkable prior-wise.

One of them is the noted South African photographer Zanele Muholi in her brash and bold imagery of the LGBTQ community over the past two decades she's captured on film of drag queens in Western dress and Zulu beadwork ("Ms. Le Shishi I, Glebelands, Durban;" "Miss D'vine I" and "Miss D'vine II") to non-binary figures ("Stanley Mabeba II, Braamfontein, Johannesburg") in chromogenic prints that, for all of its openness of being the first country in the world to enshrine gay rights in its first modern democratic constitution in 1994; mainstream societal acceptance is still elusive.

Fellow South Africans Lebohang Kganye goes into personal territory with her 2013 Ke Lifa Laka/Her Story series as a loving tribute to her late mother where she double photographs past photos of her mother in her younger years and, dressing up like her in the photo, superimposes herself near or alongside her like a "ghostly" image is startling work; as Sabelo Mlangeni's work is just as unapologetic from a township drag queen ("Bigboy"; "Lwazi Mtshali 'Bigboy'") to the perceived culture shock of a new arrival hiding pensively in the shadows of her new home ("Coming to Johannesburg") to one having well adjusted to the environs around her ("Woman and City").

Isolationism and alienation makes for a uncomfortable subject seen in "Chebet and Chenu in the Garden," as taken by Kenyan photographer Mimi Cherono Ng'ok for The Way She Looks exhibit at Ryerson Image Centre.

Santu Mofokeng's documentary-style photos of township life during the 1980s have that sense of simplicity, be it a gospel mission aboard a Soweto train ("Opening Song, Handclapping and Bell"), the subdued party atmosphere in a local unlicensed bar ("Shebeen, White City") or the unbridled joy of a young lady dancing on a dusty street ("Comrade Sister, White City"). But for a more of the contrasting nuances that was daily life under apartheid, one can't look any further than David Goldblatt's portfolio that mixes the positive of African and European children playing innocently together ("Children at the Border Between Pageview (Fietas) and Mayfair, Johannesburg") taken in 1949 to the more uncomfortable vibe felt in "Saturday Morning at the Hypermarket: Semi-final of the Miss Lovely Legs Competition" shot sometime in the early '80s where an enforcement of ideal Eurocentric beauty of these white contestants on a catwalk looking with unease while the faces of some African onlookers range from boredom to disapproval.

Kenyan Mimi Cherono Ng'ok has samples from her ongoing The Other Country series since 2008 on inkjet print hints the themes of estrangement from family members after returning home from South Africa after many years and the feeling of alienation persists as seen in "Chebet and Chenu in the Garden" as its best example of the three on display with one warily glances at the camera while the other turns uncomfortably away, to make one question to what happened prior to this being taken.

Other noteworthy ones in The Way She Looks go to Franco-Moroccan artist Yto Barrada with her 1999 "Girl in Red, Tangiers" from her A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project of a young woman in a red dress observing a highly-decorative Arabesque mosaic wall colour-clashing against the wall's secondary-colour tile work, states of the glaring division of transient life of waiting to cross the dangerous Mediterranean to Europe for a better life conveys wanting and hope.

While Cameroonian-Nigerian Samuel Fosso does a nostalgic cross-dressing tribute to African-American revolutionary sisters in "Untitled" as the unmistakable image of Angela Davis complete with tinted glass and Afro wig in silver print and the more colourful "The Liberated American Woman from the 1970s;" Guy Trillum presents a haunting Angola Civil War refugee portrait series "Kunhinga" and Kenyan-British video artist Grace Ndiritu's five-minute looped videos bases in her Still Life series done in classic portrait studio styles. Except for her hands and arms, it's about on the concealment of the female form mostly wrapped up in traditional fabrics as a statement against (male) objectification, although one truly can't help seeing the (purposely?) resemblance of "Sitting Down Textiles" video to the iconic American painting of James McNeill Whistler's "Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (a.k.a. Whistler's Mother)."

Trocking the light fantastic

Beloved ballet parodists prance their way back to Toronto this winter

Dance Preview

Those princes of pirouette pranksters, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, return to Toronto after a three-and-a-half year absence at the Winter Garden Theatre (189 Yonge Street) for a two-date stand March 7-8, 2020, after another sold-out run left them begging for an encore presentation back in 2017; as the all-male ballet corps -- affectionately known by fans worldwide for four decades as "The Trocks" -- famously mix serious aesthetics with modern dance antics of spoofing ballet's all-time greatest hits.

Founded in 1974, the New York-based dance company have since toured to over thirty countries in five hundred cities and have earned the respect and admiration not only from dance fans and critics, but also from straight-laced ballet companies worldwide (they even performed at Moscow's premier ballet house, the Bolshoi, to rave audiences).

By incorporating and exaggerating foibles, accidents and tumbles in serious dance, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo perfected the art form -- surprisingly, in size 11 pointe slippers -- as swans, water sprites, romantic princes(ses), angst-ridden Victorian ladies and, yes, bitchy prima donnas in campy modes these male ballerinas so proudly skewer.

"The Trocks offer a welcome respite from our challenging times," said Show One Productions President/Executive Producer Svetlana Dvoretsky, presenter of the shows. "In these difficult periods, this production is full of raucous humour and unbridled positivity. Indeed, audiences always have the time of their lives at Trocks' performances.

"Whether they are laughing along with the company's unique rendition of ballet favourites like Swan Lake or delighting in the take on contemporary works, audiences frequently cite the group's sensational comic timing and peerless ballet techniques as the singular reason they keep coming back again and again."

***

Tickets now on sale. For information, visit ticketking.com or showoneproductions.ca

EDITION #246 - WEEK OF NOVEMBER 12-24, 2019

Disney+ enters the new cyber-streaming frontier

Lucasfilm's first-ever live-action Star Wars series, The Mandalorian, as created, written, chief executive produced and sometimes director Jon Favreau; explodes as part of the exclusive content provided by Walt Disney Company's newly-launched streaming service, Disney+.

The long-awaited digital streaming entertainment service is now available in Canada

Arts Feature

Probably the most hotly anticipated online digital service in years, the Walt Disney Company launched Disney+ (Disney Plus) on November 12 across North America and the Netherlands with nearly 500 films and 7,500 episodes of television on any internet-connected screen and offers high-quality, commercial-free programming from Disney, Pixar Animation Studios, Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, National Geographic and more with familiar and new content up against Amazon Prime Video, CBS All Access, Hulu and Netflix, that had been its previous "home" up until a few months ago; that plans to be different than their direct competitors.

Announced back in November 2018 that they would start their own streaming online channel with reasonably monthly/yearly subscription fees, the public already were salivating at the thought taking in the massive entertainment catalogue the Walt Disney Company have amassed over the years -- including the recent multi-billion takeover of Twentieth-Century Fox's catalogue -- and over the next several months, other territories will be added in the worldwide rollout, including Australia, New Zealand, and Puerto Rico this Tuesday (November 19) and throughout Western Europe next March 31.

Currently the highest-grossing film of all time at $2.8 billion worldwide, the Marvel Studios ensemble blockbuster Avengers: Endgame joins the Disney+ line-up along with its other ensemble and solo superhero catalogue.

"The launch of Disney+ is a historic moment for our company that marks a new era of innovation and creativity," said Walt Disney Company Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robert Iger. "Disney+ provides an exceptional entertainment experience, showcasing our library of beloved movies, TV series and exclusive original content from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and National Geographic."

The Academy Award-winning Zootopia is among the many animated Disney films from the First Golden Era classics to the present to be part of Disney+.

Considering that it has earned about ten million subscribers on its first day, that's hardly an understatement. Where else can one geek out in checking out their classic animated masterpieces Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs , Beauty and the Beast and Lady and The Tramp to their latest additions like Frozen and Zootopia ; the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe of films (Iron Man to Avengers: Endgame) and original series to roll out next year with the animated alternative-universe What If... and Thor 's master of mischief Loki and the Scarlet Witch's own spinoff series -- plus Marvel TV series from the 1970s to the present day including X-Men and Spider-Man -- and the Star Wars Lucasverse that not only will have the entire space opera saga and anthology films available, plus original series featuring the post-Return of the Jedi SF/Western The Mandalorian (now available) as created and directed by Jon Favreau to the standalone series Kenobi with Ewan McGregor reprising his prequel role of Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in the years after the Great Jedi Purge?

National Geographic's quirky everyday topical weekly docu-series, The World According to Jeff Goldblum , is part of the Disney+ service that will also be presented in 4K HDR.

As part of the launch, the service premiered its first original series and films including a live-action re-telling of the 1955 animated classic Lady and the Tramp ; Noelle , an original holiday comedy film starring Anna Kendrick, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series , the all-new scripted series set at the real-life East High featured in the blockbuster trilogy; The World According to Jeff Goldblum docu-series from National Geographic; Marvel's Hero Project, which celebrates extraordinary kids making a difference in their communities; The Imagineering Story , a six-part documentary from Emmy- and Academy Award-nominated director Leslie Iwerks; short-form series Pixar IRL and Disney Family Sundays ; and animated Pixar short film collections SparkShorts and Forky Asks A Question.

Disney+ also will have available all thirty seasons of television's longest-running animated series The Simpsons ; James Cameron's Avatar ; over 400 hours of content from National Geographic, including the critically-acclaimed and award-winning documentary Free Solo and the streaming debut of Science Fair ; 18 of Pixar's groundbreaking fan favourites including the Monsters Inc. , Finding Nemo , The Incredibles and Toy Story franchises, as well as Brave , Inside Out , WALL-E and Up and all of their beloved theatrical shorts such as the Academy Award-winning Bao and Sanjay's Super Team.

From the Pixar universe for Disney + comes Toy Story 4 breakout "star" Forky in his own short series, Forky Asks A Question , asking his friends about the big questions of life.

Not to mention thousands of episodes from hit Disney Channel and Disney Junior series such as The Suite Life of Zack & Cody , Kim Possible , Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, PJ Masks and Jake and the Never Land Pirates along with the more than one hundred Disney Channel original films, including Descendants , High School Musical and Camp Rock. And just recently Shiri Appleby (Unreal) has been cast to star as a good-humoured and down-to-earth assistant basketball coach who goes up against Yvette Nicole Brown (Community) playing the no-nonsensical dean of Westbrook School for Girls in the Disney+ original tween comedy series, Big Shot along with Full House legend John Stamos joining the ensemble cast.

And subscribers will have access to a burgeoning collection of 4K Ultra HD films including the first seven Star Wars movies available for the first time in this format along with Hocus Pocus, the classic 1988 live-action/animated whodunit Who Framed Roger Rabbit and more. Disney+ also offers subscribers up to four concurrent streams with unlimited downloads on up to ten devices, personalized recommendations and the ability to set up to seven different profiles. In addition, parents will have the ability to set Kids Profiles that create an easy-to-navigate interface to access age-appropriate content.

***

Disney+ subscription fees run from $8.99 CAD/month or $89.99 CAD/year, providing access to all of the Disney+ programming. To subscribe and/or for more information, visit DisneyPlus.com or via in-app purchase from the following partner platforms and devices (dependent on country) on Amazon Fire, Apple TV, Google Android and Chromecast, Microsoft Xbox One, Sony PlayStation 4, Roku and Samsung and LG Smart TVs (please check with product manufacturers).

Petty Hood-winks for the holidays

Ross Petty Productions takes a couple of twists and a (sort-of) new venue for their 24th holiday panto

Theatre Preview

In resurrecting the old British folkloric tale of Robin Hood for this year's holiday season, Ross Petty Productions' Lil' Red Robin Hood The Family Musical That Targets Your Funny Bone! will have some new directions for their twenty-fourth show not only in taking some artistic liberties with the old theatrical standby than usual, but also slightly changing the performance venue after twenty-three years at the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge Street) by relocating upstairs into the auxiliary space better known as the Winter Gardens Theatre, just to take advantage of its unique "foliage" ceiling that inspired the pantomime with new and old faces.

The comedy musical-adventure begins in present-day Toronto where the hero Lil' Red, as played by Dear Evan Hansen star Robert Markus; is magically transported to the 16th century and lands in Sherway Gardens Forest. Running into Robin Hood, played by Lawrence Libor of Grease and Footloose fame; Maid Marion, with AJ Bridel returning in her third Petty panto (Sleeping Beauty; A Christmas Carol); and Friar Tuck, to be played by Daniel Williston from Kinky Boots ; they all join forces in defeating the evil Sheriff of Naughtyham, as played by Sara-Jeanne Hosie who was a hit as last year's Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West.

Also returning from Oz are Michael De Rose in the draggy plum role of SugarBum and long-time Petty veteran Eddie Glen for his seventeenth Petty Production; as well as director/choreographer Tracey Flye helming the usual stage shenanigans, musical director Joseph Tritt conducting the band through incidental music and old- and new-school pop/rock covers and Matt Murray delivering his third script of the anticipated fractured folktale that's been a local family favourite tradition for a 42-date run at the Winter Gardens Theatre November 29 to January 4.

***

Tickets now on sale. For more information, call 416-872-1212 or rosspetty.com.

EDITION #245 - WEEK OF NOVEMBER 11-17, 2019

Taj Express chugs along into Toronto

International hit Bollywood stage revue sets to make splashy Toronto debut

Theatre Preview

There's been an unending plethora of Indian-based theatrical musicals that have come and gone to match with the great-granddaddy of them all, the Andrew Lloyd Webber-produced Bombay Dreams which took the world by storm almost two decades ago (and seriously, it should be revived). The latest one, Taj Express: The Bollywood Musical Revue takes on its own world, featuring the songs of Academy Award-winning composer A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire ; 127 Hours); in a flurry fusion of film, music and dance for a limited run at St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts' Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front Street East) November 23 to December 1.

Already visited in over 700 cities worldwide since its 2010 debut in Mumbai with its two different touring casts and crew of thirty-one each, including four principal cast members, three musicians, twenty-one actor/dancers and a backstage crew from India, Italy and Spain; it is the creation of director Shruti Merchant and her choreographer sister Vaibhavi Merchant, who are both third-generation Indian film musical professionals courtesy of their grandfather, Shri B.Hiralal, who was a film choreographer legend and a founding father in Bollywood's Golden Era shortly after Partition.

Despite this well-grounded heritage, Shruti Merchant wanted to create a much different stage musical than the norm. "Honestly, I was a bit bored with the typical storyline that most of the (other stage) musicals have followed, boy or girl comes to India and shows India to the world in songs and dances across the landscape," she said in a interview. "I felt that Bollywood is extremely entertaining, not just for people from India but for anyone open to an entertaining medium that crosses boundaries and cross-cultural themes. Bollywood's music and the music of A.R. Rahman has been accepted worldwide and is so loved that many aspiring singers and actors want to be the next Rahman. That's how I thought of making that dream the plot for Taj Express."

The production is about a young struggling Indian composer named Shankar who is nervously trying to find his own sound who then stumbles over the works of his idol, A.R. Rahman, that he finally discovers his path to his own success, as brought to life by the stars of Bollywood cinema and its greatest musicians performing live on stage, which consists of eighty percent of music and dance and about sixty percent of the music is composed for the show by several talented composers, including popular tracks and classic Bollywood hits, as well as material from Rahman himself.

Making out to be a behind-the-scenes approach to show the filmmaking magic, including a few video projections to depict the back-lots of Bollywood studios and live musicians, Shruti doesn't deny that the show does follow the atypical formula of most Hindi film musicals. "Yes, it's extremely Bollywood-ish, with a modern twist," she admits. "I don't shy away from saying that the storyline of Taj Express is idiotic at times, but that's how people tend to be in these stories.

"Once the audience is seated they are welcomed into the world of film city, Bollywood, as if they are involved in the making of a movie, as if they are the live studio audience as the show is produced. There are unbelievable storylines, melodramatic acting and sometimes even terrible jokes, so it's not about serious theatre. It's entertainment. They can even boo the villain. Cameras are rolling and dancers are on standby. That's when we ask the audience to board the Taj Express."

***

Tickets now on sale. For information, call 1-855-985-2787 or ticketmaster.ca.

Fans alive

Fans Onstage: Handheld Splendours of the Japanese Traditional Performing Arts

Venue: Japan Foundation Toronto, 2 Bloor Street East, 3rd Floor

Dates/Times: Through January 11; Mondays and Thursdays 11:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m., Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and Saturdays 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (November 16 and 30, December 14 and January 11 ONLY)

Admission/Information: FREE. Call 416-966-1600 ext. 229 or jftor.org

Gallery Review

Practically a part of the cultural landscape since the 8th century C.E., there isn't a thing that handheld fans are not a part of Japanese life from religion to politics and, yes, the arts. The Toronto chapter of the Japan Foundation gives a glimpse into the theatrical side of the fan in its exhibition, Fans Onstage: Handheld Splendours of the Japanese Traditional Performing Arts , that Japanophiles and Asian artistry fans will fully come to appreciate in its smallish and simple display.

Notably focused on folded wing fans used in the theatres of Noh since the 15th century and Kabuki by the 17th century, it's a collection of theatrical fan props and photographs from Japanese theatres. But it comes as a surprise -- even to me -- that two types of fans are used: one for rehearsal in Noh and the other for Buyo dance and Kabuki productions as seen in the distinctively coloured hinged wings.

Several intricately detailed fans are showcased, the standouts going to the indigo-cornered and hand-painted pine branches with clematis flowers "Kyojo Ogi (Fan of Woman's Mad Scene)," "Doji Ogi (Fan of Infants)" replete with chrysanthemums by a river stream to the dramatic tidal wave iconography against a red sun and golden backing seen on "Shura Ogi (Fan of Warfare)," plus a couple of different-sided fans with "Kami Ogi (Fan of Gods)" depict four silver-haired wise men on a mountainside on one side and a phoenix sitting in a tree on the other, as a perfect example.

Yet they are not all the same, as they too can go for the aesthetic with its own contexts as seen in "Odori Mai Ogi," a series of Kabuki fans done in white with mica, pine, bamboo and plum patterns on framed hinges smoked in soot to more modernist approaches like the "Odori Mai Saga" series that have a abstract touch to them.

What it lacks in the few photos shown that aren't much to write about, Fans Onstage makes up for the abundance and structure of displayed fans, from the fancy to the simplistic, which both types can be overwhelming of their own and the similarities they share of their handcrafted beauty and purpose.

EDITION #244 - WEEK OF NOVEMBER 4-10, 2019

A latter-day ode to Beethoven's immortal composition

Beethoven's final masterwork gets a dance treatment by local ProArteDanza troupe

Dance Preview

The classical music piece is nearly two centuries old, has been universally revered and discussed by musicologists and music lovers for as nearly as long and its famed -- and most recognized -- choral section has set the scene in countless films, theatre productions, television shows and commercials and has been the official anthem of the European Union since 1994. And yet the tragic irony of it all is that its composer, Ludwig von Beethoven, never heard a single note about his immortal theme of peace, unity and freedom of it due to his advanced deafness when he wrote it.

Little can anyone guess what he would have thought over the longevity of his Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 today, in particular to the Toronto-based ProArteDanza company's adaptation of it for their 15th anniversary season opener, The 9th!, as a fully-choreographed production also in marking the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, as choreographed by company Artistic Director Roberto Campanella and Associate Robert Glumbek as it makes its Toronto premiere this Friday (November 6) at Harbourfront Centre's Fleck Dance Theatre (207 Queen's Quay West, 3rd Floor) for a limited engagement November 6 to 9.

The two choreographers bring a modern-day perspective to The 9th! that brings out a certain physical challenge to their company dancers through striking visual projections as created by David Dexter from the Screen Industries Research and Training Centre and lighting designs by Arun Srinivasan, all to a carefully edited soundtrack of the symphony via recordings from the Berlin Philharmonic under conductor Claudio Abbado, the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal under Kent Nagano and Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under Paavo Javi.

"Beethoven's 9th is a musical masterpiece that celebrates the freedom of all humanity," said the award-winning Campenella, who recently had developed the choreography on Guillermo del Toro's Academy Award-winning dark romantic-fantasy, The Shape of Water. "Our company has spent ten years carefully developing a choreographic vision of this work -- and while we've previously presented two choreographed movements of the symphony during that period -- this will be the first time the work will be presented in its entirety. Beethoven's music was our North Star and the production speaks to the overarching themes of unity, freedom and brotherhood; indeed it is no accident that when the Berlin Wall finally fell -- the legendary notes of 'Ode to Joy' from the 9th Symphony rang out."

***

Tickets are on sale. For more information, phone 416-973-4000 or visit harbourfrontcentre.com or proartedanza.com.

Picasso's Blues coming to AGO

Pablo Picasso's 1902 "Pierreuses au bar (Two Women at a Bar)" is one of the prime examples that might make the Art Gallery of Ontario's forthcoming blockbuster exhibit come June 2020.

Art Gallery of Ontario to exhibit a new major Picasso exhibit for next summer

Gallery Preview

It's been a number of years since Toronto has hosted a Pablo Picasso exhibit and when it did, it was vowed to be the last world touring exhibit of his major works. In conjunction with The Phillips Collection of Washington, D.C., the Art Gallery of Ontario will be presenting the Spaniard master artist once again in Picasso: Painting the Blue Period that will run from June 27 to September 20, 2020.

As curated by Phillips Collection's Dr. Susan Behrends Frank and AGO Associate Curator of Modern Art Kenneth Brummel, the exhibit is a culmination of sixty-five works of paintings, drawings and sculptures by Picasso and a selected few pieces by other artists that he associated with during his second visit to Paris in 1901 to the social and political upheaval which engulfed his native Barcelona between 1902-1904 that inspired his most famous and studied period of his career from loans from international public and private collections for this particular exhibit alone.

The exhibit will mark the end of an extensive multiyear international research project led by Brummel and former AGO Senior Paintings Conservator Sandra Webster-Cook over two of the Blue Period paintings owned by the gallery that made it to major newspapers from the New York Times to Britain's The Guardian ; plus an illustrated companion catalogue of the exhibit will be available during its run, as edited by Frank and Brummel and published in association with Prestel/Delmonico.

***

More information on Picasso: Painting the Blue Period will become available at a future date. For current information, visit ago.net.

EDITION #243 - WEEK OF OCTOBER 28-NOVEMBER 3, 2019

Pop-Up book fest mini-exhibit

Fest at 40: The Exhibition (Toronto International Festival of Authors/Harbourfront Centre)

Venue: Bill Boyle Artport, 235 Queen's Quay West

Dates/Times: Through November 3; Daily 10 a.m.-11 p.m.

Admission/Information: FREE; call 416-973-4000 or festivalofauthors.ca

Gallery Review

While it currently celebrates its fortieth anniversary at Harbourfront Centre, even the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) likes to keep it low-keyed in their temporary commemorative Fest at 40: The Exhibition just right next to the Artport Gallery at Bill Boyle Artport on how far the literary fest has come.

Left-right: Canadian art collective FASTWURMS' tote bag design from 2008 and the official tartan of TIFA as formally authenticated by the Government of Scotland in 2009 both laid together in a showcase at Fest at 40 exhibit.

Among its chronological history as displayed with selected posters over the years, most of them are a far cry from the very first one in 1979 in terms of artistic merit and quality when the area was just a little derelict facility for most of the 1970s -- when it was then the Harbourfront International Authors' Festival, then the International Festival of Authors by 1985 up until last year, the re-branded TIFA -- as a six-day event with only 23 authors that included heavyweights Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Polish-American poet Czeslaw Milosz, who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature two weeks before his fest appearance.

Getting back to the posters, the standouts go to the award-winning Baroque-style 1990 design by Joe Fleming and Annalisa Di Felice, Michael Snow's 1991 abstract design construct, 2003's "Book Sculpture (Grand)" by Micah Lexier and Seth's whimsical 2016 design. Other archival pieces include a 2009 souvenir tote bag with the Canadian FASTWURMS art collective's (a.k.a. Kim Kozzi and Dai Skuse) image to mark TIFA's 30th year (or, as it saucily goes by its roman numeral readout, XXX) to a official tartan during its 2008 Scottish-themed year that included a festival audio greeting by actor Sean Connery who had his biography released at the time at TIFA (but unfortunately, never attended).

Left-right: The TIFA poster designs by Joe Fleming and Annalisa Di Felice for 1990 and Michael Snow's abstract design from 1991.

Perhaps TIFA's personal best achievement is seen with a melange of photos and book copies from the mega-reading event held at Rogers Centre (formerly Skydome) in 2000 with Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling herself that is still in the Guinness World Records with a unprecedented 20,264 audience attendance during the height of Pottermania, even a Polaroid reproduction of Rowling with Atwood herself, both comically donning wizard hats, is the piece de resistance.

Festival at 40 also is interactive (of sorts) with a birthday wish wall where one can tack on Post-It note greetings and a TIFA Time Capsule encouraging viewers to contribute a title/author they believe will be talked about when it gets opened up forty years from now -- that is, in time for the fest's eightieth anniversary in 2059.

TIFA goers and Fest at 40 visitors get to contribute their Post-It Note birthday greetings and be part of a time capsule project that won't be open until the literary festival's 80th anniversary -- in 2059.

A nice little respite for festival-goers in its busyness, the exhibit holds a lot of pride in its history on its achievement past and present and continues to grow, despite the age of the digital reader that tends to threaten physical books; through its literacy outreach and literary community programs at home and abroad as it does in promoting Canadian and world literature as a whole.

***

TIFA continues through to this Sunday (November 3).

Insightful perspectives and humility lessons

The Way I Heard It

by Mike Rowe

280 pp.; Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster Canada

Softcover, $36

Non-fiction/Humour

Book Review

Emmy-winning American television and podcaster personality Mike Rowe has had a varied career in the last two decades from hosting his Discovery Channel shows Dirty Jobs , Somebody's Gotta Do It and on the long-defunct pioneering shopping channel QVC back in the 1990s to his more recent online endeavours with his Facebook show Returning the Favor and popular podcast programme The Way I Heard It. Taking some of his best podcasts from the latter and putting it into his first book that mixes autobiography with philosophy, has a unique touch and presentation, as well as providing a few surprising history lessons in turn.

Going back and forth to his boyhood days on his Maryland farmhouse home to some of the craziest things to demonstrate on how some jobs are tougher than others -- like retrieving horse semen at a stud farm to being a maintenance crewmember replacing light bulbs on a windy suspension bridge cable -- Rowe offers some insightful observations from his own perspective, and of thirty-five others, from famous celebrities to the everyperson on the street.

This comes more to a point when Rowe had accumulated a tidy nest egg and entrusted it to his financial advisor who he'd once considered as a close friend had later absconded it all during the Great Recession (who was later caught and doing time in prison), the slow rebuild of his career and, learning from doing Dirty Jobs ; decided to create a work ethic scholarship program in teaching job skills through his mikeroweWORKS Foundation in giving back to society as being something more altruistic than obtaining a fortune.

The Way I Heard It offers the reader to find the inspiration that makes one come to terms with themselves, take humility lessons whenever you can, learn from the greatest triumphs and defeats that is the constant as to better oneself and manage to get a couple of laughs along the way to be able to get through this everlasting pathway called life.

EDITION #242 - WEEK OF OCTOBER 21-27, 2019

Mandela exhibit sets example of peace and reconciliation

Nelson Mandela lights a candle for the victims of the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre that galvanized the armed struggle against apartheid in South Africa, as among the many artefacts displayed at the Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibit at the Meridian Arts Centre

Mandela: Struggle for Freedom (Canadian Museum for Human Rights/Apartheid Museum/TO Live)

Venue: Meridian Arts Centre, 5040 Yonge Street

Dates/Times: Through January 5; Tuesday-Wednesday 1-6 p.m. and Thursday-Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Admission/Information: General $12; call 416-250-3708 or meridianartscentre.com

Gallery Review

When walking through the Mandela: Struggle for Freedom at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly Toronto Centre for the Arts), based on the life and times of South African leader and humanitarian Nelson Mandela; don't be surprised that, in reality, the anti-apartheid revolutionary-turned-respected head of state was a ordinary man who lived a extraordinary life is compressed into a medium-sized exhibit that carries a large impact on the viewer in many ways one can't comprehend.

Comprised of two floors in the venue space that once was the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA), it's an immersive exhibit of artefacts from the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and Winnipeg's Canadian Museum for Human Rights to put into perspective on this country's relations with the global anti-apartheid movement and personal history with Mandela's struggle that honourably compliment each other for the most part.

The lower floor starts with the history of racial segregation in the post-World War II era that was already entrenched since the end of the 19th century that carried over in the passing of the 1910 South Africa Act, granting dominion to the European minority over the Native (African), South Asian and "Coloured" (mixed heritage) groups as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire; and the adoption of apartheid (separateness) in 1947 which by that time Mandela began studying law where he was the only black African student and faced the racism that would become his lifelong fight against.

This is emphasized by the collage of segregation signs and posts that differentiated between Europeans and Africans that boldly stand out to get the oppressive feel of how out there apartheid really was, plus the passbooks of where whites only got this simple citizenship card and Africans endured near-daily humiliation and harassment by police officers enforcing the laws of where one could live and work in the country, also heightened by the nearby detailed map showing where they could reside.

By the time the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 brought the international spotlight of where 69 Africans were gunned down for peacefully protesting against the system, Mandela and his fellow members of the African National Congress (ANC), during the time the African Liberation movement was sweeping the continent; decided that civil disobedience had to give way to an armed struggle and conducted acts of sabotage by its guerrilla branch, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of The Nation). This is seen by the archival footage of his famous ITN interview with Brian Widlake and a reproduction of his fake Ethiopian passport that he used to visit England and fifteen other African nations that are on display to show the gravity of his underground activities that were deemed a threat to the apartheid government.

A life-sized reproduction of Prisoner 466/64 (a.k.a. Nelson Mandela)'s prison cell at Robben Island is among one of many audio/visual interactive displays at the Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibit.

After his 1962 arrest and 1963 Rimona Trial that sentenced him to life imprisonment at Robben Island to become the world's most famous political prisoner for the next 27 years, there's a reproduction of his 2.1 x 2.4-metre (7x8-foot) boxy prison cell where Mandela spent his first eighteen years of incarceration that is motion-activated with his archival recordings of what it was like for him, is the exhibit's sobering moment to absorb.

As one heads up the upper level from the darkness to the light on the second floor comes Struggle for Freedom 's more recognized period in living memory of the 1980s that brought South Africa back on the world's radar. A halved section of one of those real-life armoured police tanks that roamed the African townships making the nightly news worldwide demonstrate the David-versus-Goliath-type confrontations can be intimidating for some. Also, an interactive display where one can make digital anti-apartheid "posters" and be displayed is a fun and educational way to learn about the resurrected movement gaining momentum.

From oppression to democracy: A section of a real-life armoured police tank (left) that patrolled the African townships during the state of emergency of the 1980s and a ballot box (right) for the first-ever multiracial elections in 1994 represent the hard earned struggle to end systematic racism in South Africa.

Towards the exhibit's end is Mandela's triumphant unconditional 1989 release that brought -- and still brings -- universal joy, along with the very uneasy transition towards freedom that had its Canadian connections, that includes a signed House of Commons guest book by Nelson and Winnie Mandela (Canada was the very first country they visited) and involved as international advisors and monitors of its first fully multiracial and democratic elections in 1994. One of its curiosities is the ballot that had a last-minute sticker involving the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party and some interestingly named ones like the Women's Rights Peace Party, Keep It Straight and Simple (KISS) Party and (a personal favourite) the Sports Organization for Collective Contributions and Equal Rights (SOCCER) Party.

Even after his death just six short years ago, Mandela's example of peace and reconciliation looms large on the world stage, with his establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 that looked into state-sponsored crimes and extrajudicial murders committed by the regime after becoming South Africa's first post-apartheid president inspired other nations to do the same, like Australia, East Timor and even Canada in more recent times with our Indigenous community.

Struggle for Freedom is a must-see exhibit on those interested not only in modern history but in learning the sprit of forgiveness, unity and equality by looking into our own dark reflections to free our national consciences and, despite our imperfections, can we truly move on toward bettering ourselves and the world in general.

Tropical pulp thriller epically thunders

The Deserter

by Nelson DeMille and Alex DeMille

560 pp.; Simon & Schuster Canada

Softcover, $38.99

Fiction/Political Thriller

Book Review

Tearing out real-world events and situations and churning them into believable thrillers come few and far in-between these days in the publishing world. So it's kind of refreshing to come across master thriller novelist Nelson DeMille (The General's Daughter) whom, for the first time, joins forces with his noted screenwriter son Alex DeMille (My Nephew Emmett) in creating The Deserter that matches the same pace of anything John Le Carre or Clive Cussler can muster up.

U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) Special Agent Scott Brodie is given a sensitive assignment when Kyle Mercer, a top-notch Delta Force member whose capture by the Taliban in Afghanistan made headline news two years prior with a rather embarrassing video and followed by a even more disturbing secret video of him slaughtering his captors a year later, along with the self-declared resignation of his commission to the army; has suddenly been found by a old army buddy on a business trip in one of the most unstable areas of the world right now: Venezuela.

Brodie, a highly competent investigator with a maverick streak, along with his newly-installed partner Maggie Taylor are ordered by their superiors to bring Mercer home alive to answer to the rare charge of desertion and to get him a fair trial. Upon arrival in the capital Caracas, the CID agents find themselves in a decaying semi-dictatorial state that is rich in natural beauty and petroleum, yet teeming with poor people trying to cope in a post-Chavez society seemingly overrun by corrupt government officials and rival criminal gangs running the slums.

But that's next to nothing compared to even more bigger problems at hand, when they learn that their renegade solider has been training a clandestine mercenary army deep in the forbidding jungles in a nearly inaccessible camp and one U.S. Colonel Brendan Worley, an unscrupulous CIA operative working out of the American Embassy down there, whom Mercer has a serious hate-on for. And above all that, can Brodie even trust Taylor to do her job, despite her attractiveness and having heard past rumours questioning her personal loyalties?

Loaded with enough gunfights and skulduggery, the novel contains that Heart of Darkness feel one would expect from the DeMilles who have the knack for with an even pacing and tons of twists when they place their heroes in awkwardly tight situations and intrigue, especially when level-headed Taylor has to clash with the acerbically dry humour -- and slight daredevil machismo -- of Brodie that may or may not get them both killed in the process.

The Deserter also provides itself in making a commentary on American foreign policy, the actions of the military-industrial complex and class divisions into the current chaos gripping Venezuela in the last few months that feel so real in this epic page-turner of a pulp political-thriller at best.

EDITION #241 - WEEK OF OCTOBER 7-13, 2019

Stark Big Easy classic stands out

A Streetcar Named Desire (Soulpepper Theatre)

Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane

Friday, October 4; 7:30 p.m.

Theatre Review

Tennessee Williams certainly had a knack of tapping into the psyche of 20th-century America and putting it into his works, as so demonstrated in Soulpepper Theatre's staging of his Pulitzer Prize-winning landmark drama A Streetcar Named Desire that is probably the company's personal best of a production mount in its twenty-one-year history that I've seen put on in ages.

From its cacophonic burst of the bustling city sounds of post-World War II New Orleans the play opens up with, upper-middle class private schoolteacher Blanche DuBois (Amy Rutherford) arrives in the city's French Quarter where her sister Stella (Leah Doz) and brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski (Mac Fyfe) resides.

Putting on an air of superiority and delicateness versus Stanley's working-class demeanour, Blanche stays for a spell after a leave of absence from her teaching job and losing the family plantation in unexplained arrears that causes insufferable conflict not only with him, but also with aghast on how Stella is so happily adjusted amongst the lower-class and colourful African-American neighbours (Akosua Amo-Adem, Lindsay Owen Pierre), as well as to his perceived crassness.

Before long, she starts to wear out her welcome in their cramped if humble apartment with her hoity mannerisms, in particular her flirtations with Stanley's sensitive best bud and co-worker Harold "Mitch" Mitchell (Gregory Prest); as Stella is expecting and Stanley's tolerance level begins to fray around her, not to mention Blanche's so-called gilded past catches up with her that is seemingly unable to accept a rapidly changed world that no longer exists.

Forget everything you've seen in the iconic 1951 film adaptation with Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh; checking out this original stage version totally knocks it out of the park under Weyni Mengesha's highly energetic direction keeping things fluid with musical segments, as performed by cast member musicians SATE and Kaleb Horn, embodying the Big Easy's spirit of jazz and blues are brilliant touches as guided by company music director Mike Ross.

Rutherford certainly brings out an amazing performance as the long-faded Southern belle with a martyrdom complex haunted by personal ghosts and encroaching life realities; Fyfe puts in enough volatility to the roughen war vet and working-class antihero Stanley in his part; Doz acts as the conflicted balancer between these two as hovering being pragmatism and complacency in a decent way. Lorenzo Savioni's minimalist stage design of corrugated steel panelling adds an industrialized feel of a postwar America in which the play is set in syncs to Kimberly Purcell's direct lighting designs.

Just as stark and freshly relevant today as it was back in its 1947 debut, A Streetcar Named Desire addresses over class structure, racism, social divisions and materialism as it does over loss, love, memory and prestige in the two-act, three-hour-and-fifteen minute play showing what America is rather than what it was in a prime examination of the human condition.

***

A Streetcar Named Desire continues through October 27. For tickets and information, call 416-866-8666 or soulpepper.ca.

Cirque getting ready to R.U.N

Performers provide a preview at the San Diego Comic-Con 2019 this past July of Cirque du Soliel's latest production based on action films, R.U.N .

Cirque du Soleil readies to premiere its gritty cinematic-based onstage thriller R.U.N, its most audacious project yet on the Las Vegas Strip this month

Arts Feature

Practically twenty-six years after "planting a flower in the desert" in Las Vegas with their residency shows, one wouldn't think that Cirque du Soleil would have a problem coming up with another production in their home away from home. But after the amicable closure of Mindfreak Live (previously entitled Believe ), their magic show with master illusionist Criss Angel after ten years at the Luxor Hotel and Casino last fall, the Montreal-based contemporary circus admittedly got a bit stuck said its President/CEO Daniel Lamarre.

"We looked to our audiences who are seeing Cirque du Soleil shows and those not seeing Cirque shows -- there are a few," Lamarre chuckled. "We talked to people who are show-goers and people who are not and asked 'What kind of content can we offer you?' It was quite compelling that live action would be a genre to attract new people, and also a genre that Cirque fans would find interesting."

Never the one to back down from a challenge and to draw in a younger audience, the Canadian circus that brought masterpieces like Mystere and O to the more recent hits The Beatles LOVE and Michael Jackson ONE , their forty-seventh production (and its tenth for Las Vegas), R.U.N , takes themes from action films and graphic novels and crams them into a reported C$35 million gritty live-action thriller stunt show due to make its anticipated debut on October 24 at the refurbished theatre space at the Luxor.

"When we started doing the research," Lamarre explained, "one thing became clear: that the younger crowd was looking for more action. When you look at the movie business now and you take the box office ranking of the first ten movies, probably nine out of ten are action movies and definitely there is an appetite for that kind of entertainment."

Set around a fictionalized Las Vegas underworld, R.U.N begins with a linear narrative storyline and opening narration -- a rarity that hasn't been used since their other Vegas show, the martial-arts epic adventure KA , opened back in 2004 -- of a desert chapel wedding between two gangland clans that suddenly gets interrupted that involves a man on the run and a bride in a heated chase from the altar to the Strip, as written by noted filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (Grindhouse ; Dusk Till Dawn ; Spy Kids Quadrilogy ) and directed by Michael Schwandt, who has done music videos for Lady Gaga, Avril Lavigne and Kendrick Lamar.

Las Vegas street artist Jay "Tiki Jay One" James puts finishing touches to the mural outside the theatre for the new Cirque show,R.U.N , at Luxor Hotel and Casino.

Originally under the working title Jump , R.U.N got its official name from Lamarre's 21-year old son Arthur who saw the word "run" and read off the letters as pronounced "are you in?", as play on words and the immersive experience expected from its seventy-five minute length time.

"When you sit in your seat, we want you to forget you're watching something and feel more like you are part of something," Lamarre said about the concept. "You will be surrounded by giant screens and visual effects and a lot of stunts happening live. There will be people chasing each other. There will be people literally running around you. There will be fights -- the difference here is, it's a show and not a movie. You're not just sitting there; you are part of the action."

So how do you aim for a generation who are more likely to check out the latest cineplex offerings from the Marvel Cinematic Universe or The Fast and The Furious franchises rather than watch some live theatre? For starters, do the ultimate turnaround that some hardcore Cirque fans would consider highly sacrilegious: cut out the acrobats. "People are very intrigued that we are coming out with a show that is totally different from our previous shows and the fact that it will have no acrobatic acts is creating lot of questions," Lamarre conceded. But, he added: "when you tell them the acrobatic acts are going to be replaced by stunts, then people get it.

"Our casting department has been overwhelmed by how many stunt people there are so now, it's almost like have opened another branch [at Cirque]. And we have conducted workshops for many months now to make sure that the stunts would remain very credible when they are live."

At Cirque's International Headquarters in Montreal, motorcycle stunt performers all perform on electric motorbikes in training for R.U.N.

The guy in charge of getting R.U.N 's orgy of stage dives, pyrotechnics and vehicular mayhem is the production"s Human Performance Designer Rob Bollinger. "To put a car at the Luxor Hotel is a big challenge, but we wanted to do that because cars are an important element in stunts," he said. "So what we're going to do, with projection behind this car and a treadmill, we're going to create a live-action scenario, okay? We're going to have (electric) motorcycles, we're going to have people in the car fighting, the car's going to look like it's moving and we're going to have real stunts. We have six motorcycles; we have two, we have three different disciplines, we have trial, we have [them doing] aerial flips. And we also have stunt riding, which is street bike-riding, they do the wheelies and all types of figures that you see in a street bike motorcycle.

"With some specific materials we can create, these were the basic materials we had for the workshop, and ultimately we do great things with Kevlar and real flame-retardant things and create the costumes specifically for them, so it's lightweight. It allows them to manoeuvre and do all their moves, yet still has the fire protection needed. And, yeah, one of our challenges is going to develop that performance. How long can we create [that]? If we can create one minute, you know, on fire. If we can create a minute on fire and then that thing leads to something else on fire for another minute and then onto another, then we can start to see it grow and grow."

"We got the performance moving, and as long as you're moving, the flame is pretty predictable, you know? It's when you stop and it starts to surround you that it gets to be pretty scary and dangerous," Bollinger continued. "And so that works well for us in terms of performance because we're always in the movement. Yes, there are times when you can use CGI to fake things and do things in the movie world, but we can't [here on stage]. We need to do it live, so we need to do it live and we need to do it ten times a week, and we need to do it every week of the year. And so to be able to put that together and design that properly is going to be a super-critical."

"Working in the film industry or like TV, you get one take, two takes, three takes or four takes; but in this (theatrical) world, you get just one take, which is very different," added Action Sequence Designer Jean Frenette, who's worked with action stars like Bruce Willis. "The challenge for us is to deliver the same visual impact, you know, but with a 180-degree point-of-view, which is very hard to sell all those hits, you know, with any action that we do [on stage] that is believable like what you would see in a movie, but in a live show.

Motorcycle stunt performers and stunt people rehearse at Cirque's International Headquarters in Montreal for R.U.N , set to debut at its Las Vegas residency on October 24.

"You do stunt in a movie, you do that one bit that going to last two seconds, three seconds; then you cut. In this case [with R.U.N ], it's got to be one continuous action and you it's not easy, because, you know, it's the fire," Frenette explained further. "In this case, for the burn, obviously we need to be very safe because we're dealing with real flames. It's the real deal, so the approach is like the same on a movie set. We got the underwear that is made out of Nomex (a fire-resistant fibre, also used in protective clothing for firefighters to astronauts), which is a protection. Then we have the gel is the second protection you put on top."

"We have a phenomenal stunt team that comes from the film world," stated R.U.N director Schwandt, "and it's been bridging that gap between, you know, when a film is done you do the stunt in one take, you do it again, you do it again and then you move on. The tricky part is stringing all of those sequences together in a live show, right? We don't necessarily have time to stop, [and] reset it. It has to be a complete choreographed stage secret. So I think that's been the biggest challenge for me from a stunt perspective. I love the challenge the show has presented, [and] I love the fact that I'm doing a Cirque du Soleil show without circus acrobats in the show."

Even its soundtrack gets a hard rock makeover by its composer Tyler Bates, who's scored films for Guardians of The Galaxy , John Wick , Atomic Blonde and this summer's smash-hit actioner Hobbs & Shaw to popular videogames God of War: Ascension to Killzone: Shadow Fall ; fell into Schwandt's radar. "When I started looking [for a composer for the show], I kept seeing his name pop up and I said 'Okay, we just need to call this guy and see.'"

Former Marilyn Manson guitarist-turned-film score composer Tyler Bates provides the soundtrack for his first theatrical endeavour with Cirque du Soleil's R.U.N.

"I never expected to work on a Cirque show -- It was something that never occurred to me," confessed Bates, a former Marilyn Manson lead guitarist, when he got the tapped for the job. The sound for R.U.N gets broken down into several chapters requiring different types of music to go along with the dialogue involved from Rodriguez's script. "So when samples of the dialogue started to appear and we started placing them in our initial rough sketches of music of the show, it definitely informed us about the function of music throughout the show in a way that is different from what we understood it to be before that dialogue.

"Each of those chapters have their own look, and the music needs to evolve with the progression of the show," he continued. "It's like a modern amalgam of musical styles from the past thirty years. There's an Eighties inspiration for a little bit of it; there's a metal inspiration for a part of it; there's definitely electro influence on what I'm doing," plus some "famous songs" being adapted with several "known vocalists" for it that Bates refuses to disclose at this time, a well-honed tradition within Cirque ("I can't," he quipped. "Someone will kill me.").

Five major characters are in R.U.N, who make up part of the young sixty-member cast, actor Mark Poletti, 29, from Los Angeles via Philadelphia plays The Hero. "If I had to describe my character in three words, I would say, cunning would be one, heroic and badass," he said. "Maybe he's a bit of a show-off and maybe there's a little cockiness and arrogance [to him], but in a good way, a heroic way. But in think, in the show, my character is willing to do pretty bad things to people that I necessarily would think of doing in real life. But in the context of the show, he's got to do what he's got to do get something that was taken from him."

While the show doesn't have clowns in a traditional sense, second-generation circus performer Sam Ferlo certain acts like one as The Professional. "He's a hitman, but he's very unprofessional at killing people," the 22 year-old New Yorker native describes his role in the show. "Such as, when he's off to kill somebody but he does an accident, he's very clumsy about everything, he falls downstairs all the time. He's the comic relief of the whole story." When first auditioning for the part, Ferlo admitted it was a very hard and stressful, yet "very exciting" at the time. "There was like thirty of us (at audition) and at the end, there was five of us," he said. "And then there was another audition called the 'specific audition' here [at Cirque's International Headquarters in Montreal] and I was invited to come to that. And it was more of the same thing, except it was more fun. I got a call later in a couple of months and I got the job.

"What attracted me to the project? I think the stunts; the stunts attracted me very much. I've always wanted to get into stunts, such as Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin (and) Harold Lloyd. I've always wanted to be a big part of that stuff, so I get to do stunts in an action-live thriller onstage seemed very new and 'why not?'...I think what drew me to that was, I was told to do that but also I'm just funny in general, so I can't not be serious. If my character had a theme song, it would probably be a rustic version of (the James Bond theme) 007 -- a very messed-up version of 007."

Probably R.U.N 's standout character will go to Austin Punton, working under the professional name as Auzzy Blood, playing the goth-looking maniac known as The Doctor who will leave audiences amazed and/or grossed-out with his unique talents. "I'm hired to do freak show stunts. It's something Cirque has never worked with before," Punton explained his part. "I hammer nails into my face; I take a grinder to them while they're in there. I swallow swords, lift weights with my eye sockets and many, many other dangerous things that involve needles, grinders and circular saws.

Extreme freak show performer Austin Punton, professionally known as Auzzy Blood; plays the psychotic heavy, The Doctor, for Cirque du Soleil's R.U.N.

"Everything I do is a hundred-percent real, which could end my life at any moment. There's no magic, there's no illusion [to it]," said the former 22 year-old certified medical assistant before going into showbiz. "Being part of [R.U.N] has been incredibly unique and unforgettable. This journey has challenged me physically and mentally as a performer, from overcoming personal weaknesses to accomplishing things I never imagined possible."

(Incidentally, R.U.N is definitely not a family-friendly production, another rarity for Cirque since its ongoing R-rated Vegas burlesque show Zumanity ; due to its violent scenes and adult content. To check out examples of Punton's abilities, click on this link. NOTE: Contains disturbingly graphic freak show scenes that are not for the squeamish, therefore viewer discretion is advised -- and please do not try these stunts at home.)

And the ladies are just as tough as the guys, as demonstrated by Parisian-born Emilie Caillon who has a background in gymnastics and dance training and done some previous action roles in film, including a plum role in Marvel Studios' forthcoming Black Widow solo film out next year; playing the resident femme fatale known as The Bride. "Obviously, when I understood they wanted to get me as the main female character, I was like, 'Yes, I'm in!'" she laughs. "So, Cirque called me for this part and when they explained to me what I'd have to do, like performing with bikes, performing on the harness, then doing a big badass fight at the end, I was getting more and more excited about it...And when they offered me to be the female hero I said yeah. I really want to do that because in some way, I guess, I want to defend that girls can be very powerful."

From Russia comes multi-instrumentalist Nastya Maslova who is The DJ, an enigmatic figure doing the live-looping DJ duties in R.U.N. "I like that my character is the part of my nature that isn't fully revealed [in the show]," she said, through a translator. "I'm glad I had the opportunity to discover that part of me here. Our acting skills teacher and choreographer both helped me with [developing] it and the overall process helps it, so I like it.

"I really like working here and in this project, especially considering that the project and our new show will be a unique, never-before-seen thing at Cirque. Overall, the whole situation that I am here working in Cirque, in another country, is already the biggest challenge for me. It was also quite challenging for me that I sometimes have to attend sports classes with all the people who perform the (stunt) tricks, with all the athletes and you have to be consistent. And you have to pull up [your weight around here] and work with them. So, to some extent, this is also a big challenge for me, because I'm not a sports person. In this regard, I try to toe the line with everyone here."

Even with six residency shows currently running that still packs them in on a nightly basis and after two-and-half decades in Sin City, Cirque still has its own pre-show jitters to how audiences will take R.U.N as another uncharted territory they're about to engage in. "You have no idea of the anxiety [for this production] -- and it's healthy," said Lamarre. "Because if we say, 'we're Cirque du Soleil and so people will come,' it wouldn't work. That would be the beginning of the end [of us]. We're totally blind right now, diving in and hoping for the best. We're not stupid either; we have experience and we have great people and I think we're mitigating out risk by doing our homework. But, you never know in live entertainment how people are going to react and that's the excitement of working in the entertainment business in this city in particular."

***

R.U.N will begin its indefinite run (no pun intended) starting October 24 at the R.U.N Theatre at the Luxor Hotel and Casino (3900 South Las Vegas Boulevard), Las Vegas, Nevada. For tickets and information, call 1-855-706-5433 or cirquedusoleil.com/run.

EDITION #240 - WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 30-OCTOBER 6, 2019

Abominably charming fantasy-adventure

Abominable (DreamWorks/Universal)

Vocal Talents: Chloe Bennet, Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Joseph Izzo

Directors: Jill Culton and Todd Wilderman

Producers: Suzanne Buirgy, Peilin Chou and Dave Polsky

Screenplay: Jill Culton

Film Review

Apparently it's the cinematic year of the yeti, what with Smallfoot and Missing Link making the rounds into the cineplexes of late. So now DreamWorks Animation gets a turn to cash in on this trend with Abominable that recently made the rounds at this year's TIFF, which actually has a heart to this fantasy/adventure-com.

Teenaged Yi (Bennet) is a talented young violinist living with her widowed mother (Michelle Wong) and grandmother (Tsai Chin) in their cramped Shanghai apartment and spending most of her summer vacation period doing odd jobs around town in secretly raising funds for her dream cross-China trip she once planned with her late father.

Her life changes one night when an escaped yeti (Izzo) takes refuge in her private rooftop hideaway, trying to avoid capture. Naming the alone and scared creature Everest, Yi realizes that the gentle giant wants to return to the Himalayans and unexpectedly helps him with his homeward-bound journey.

With her neighbours and friends the pubescent Peng (Tsai), an aspiring basketball star and his older cousin Jin (Trainor), a somewhat self-centered ladies' man; reluctantly in tow with this endeavour, they discover that Everest has supernatural powers in tune with nature and do everything they can to avoid him from being recaptured by an obsessed adventurer-turned-industrial magnate named Burnish (Eddie Izzard) and his zoologist, Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson).

While it all sounds like a cartoon hybrid of The Incredible Journey-meets-E.T. , writer/co-director Jill Culton (Open Season) mainly keeps the storyline that is light on the sentimental about finding the things that were once believed to been gone from your life lies waiting to be rediscovered, is a interesting concept while staying amusingly entertaining for younger kids and adults at best with its gorgeous animation.

Bennet voices a brave and smart heroine out of Yi of a young lady learning to cope with her loss and openly play music again, does better than any present-day Disney Princess could; Tsai and Trainor make good as her trusty companions; Izzard fits into his customary antagonist role well enough with Paulson who isn't the person one thinks she is and Tsai Chin as Yi's grandmotherly Nai Nai is a treat being the comic relief whenever she takes screen time.

In partnership with the Shanghai-based Pearl Studio, DreamWorks pulls off a charmingly sweet and likeable fare with Abominable , especially with the running gag of a whooping snake having a pun-tastic moment in reference to a '90s one-hit wonder earning a giggle (stick around for the end credits, too); about expanding and exploring your limits and the meaning of family.

Summertime teen romance a blast

The Baby-Sitters Club Graphic Novel #7: Boy-Crazy Stacey

by Gale Galligan; based on the Ann M. Martin novel

165 pp.; Graphix/Scholastic Canada

Softcover, $13.99

Graphic Novel/Juvenile Literature

Book Review

The highly-popular and bestselling graphic novel remakes of Ann M. Martin's The Baby-Sitters Club (BSC) returns with the seventh in the series, Boy-Crazy Stacey , which follows in the route of one of the basic themes of adolescent fiction: the unforgettable summer romance done with all the humour and turmoil that comes with it as well crafted by graphic novelist Gale Galligan.

Picking up from 2018's Kristy's Big Day , the middle-school childcare ensemble of Stoneybrook, Connecticut go on a two-week summer break before heading back to school and this time follows two major characters, the treasurer and resident fashionista Stacey McGill and shy, sensitive club secretary Mary Anne Spier; as they are hired by the Pike family to care for their eight kids -- excluding the tween bookish BSC and eldest family member Mallory -- for a paying vacation assignment at the fictional New Jersey seaside resort of Sea City at a expansive beachfront house with plenty to do.

If handling seven young energetic children all under the age of ten wasn't enough of a handful for the two girls, it gets more complicated when hunky fifteen-year old lifeguard Scott Foley catches Stacey's eye and totally falls hard for him at first sight (she was always the guy-crazy one of the group from the very start; see BSC#1: Kristy's Great Idea).

This unfortunately creates a certain amount of tension between her and Mary Anne, who is left stuck with the Pike brood while Stacey selfishly hangs around the lifeguard stand whenever Scott's on duty, much like a moth to a flame. As the two weeks go by, she learns about summertime crushes, responsibilities and meaningful partnerships when it matters the most.

For her third BSC graphic novel gig, Galligan's artwork gets easily acceptable with her manga-style approach with every novel, including Braden Lamb's superb colourizing; and some highly innovative panel layouts since Dawn and the Impossible Three and this time adds just a little contemporary "Easter eggs" in slightly keeping up with the present times, like ripped-up jeans and just one existent cellphone; while remaining in the books' original pre-internet, pre-PDA timeframe.

As it does for the main characters, now both thirteen, they undergo maturing personal changes, as they both share the commonality of having quasi-helicopter parents (with Stacey, in her first "standalone" book since BSC#2: The Truth About Stacey ; handling her Type 1 diabetes and Mary Anne, learning to assert herself from her widower father) who are also learning to let go.

Fans won't be disappointed with this adaptation of Boy-Crazy Stacey with Mary Anne establishing her own identity and Stacey finally getting some sense of independence and learning about love for the 9-15 year-old set, as well as those who grew up with the classic 1980s teen fiction series. And for those who can't get enough of BSC , a spinoff graphic novel series for younger readers based on Kristy's younger stepsister Karen, will be released in time for Christmas.

***

Baby-Sitters Little Sister #1: Karen's Witch graphic novel will be published on December 26.

TIFA turns a page at 40

Iconic American Civil Rights and feminist author Angela Davis will be part of this year's Toronto International Festival of Authors line-up for its 40th anniversary on November 2.

Toronto International Festival of Authors 2019 Preview

2019 becomes a milestone for Harbourfront Centre's annual literary fete, the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) for October 24 to November 3, as it marks its fortieth anniversary since its inception by bringing in over 200 participants from over thirty countries worldwide for 60-plus events over its eleven-day schedule that will include roundtable discussions, one-on-one interviews, readings, anniversary parties, book signings, theatrical and musical presentations and more in free and ticketed events.

Among the many events being held will be the return of the opening weekend-long Authors on Tour at Union Station (65 Front Street West; October 26-28) in bringing spirited author readings to the city's busiest commuter interchange; the one-day Small Press Market (October 26) featuring twelve of Canada's most prominent independent publishers; the English-language finalists of the 2019 Governor General's Literary Awards in a panel discussion with moderator Carol Off at GGBooks: A Festival Celebration (October 27); Open Mic: Festival Edition (October 24), a special tribute to the festival's early years, by recreating the kind of waterfront open mic sessions that inspired the very first festival in 1979; the one-night The Swingin' Moonlight Reading Hour (November 1) where Toronto's most artful musicians will accompany readings by some of TIFA's most exciting authors with host Sean Michaels; Europe On Tour (October 27) with authors from the European Union reading acclaimed works recited live in the languages in which they were originally written -- and in English -- which includes a reception and the two-day TDSB Toronto Young Writers Conference (October 31-November 1) helping out Toronto District School Board (TDSB) students thrive by connecting them to the community of established writers working in Toronto and beyond.

The Festival of Trees is just one of the initiatives of TIFA's outreach program to encourage reading amongst children over its four decades of existence.

Among the other milestone anniversaries being held at TIFA includes the world's biggest romance publisher (and Toronto-based!) Harlequin at 70 with leading authors Maggie K. Black, Molly Fader and Stefanie London (October 26); Canada's oldest independent publisher, Goose Lane Editions turns sixty-five (October 29); Book*hug 15th Anniversary (November 2) celebrates the fifteen years since TIFA commissioned its first title in 2004 when it was the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) and A City of Books: 45 Years of the Toronto Book Awards (November 2), where the afternoon unveiling of the commemorate stone for 2018 Toronto Book Award winner David Chariandy, author of Brother , is scheduled.

And big-time authors slated to come to TIFA are the prolific German author Frido Mann about life, literature and the legacy of his Nobel Prize-winning author grandfather, Thomas Mann (October 26); Mozhdah Jamalzadah, considered the Oprah Winfrey of her native Afghanistan, will discuss her biography, Voice of Rebellion , with its English translator Roberta Staley (October 30); a TIFA tribute to the acclaimed late Chinese-Canadian author Wayson Choy (October 26) remembered by his friends and colleagues; Dastaan: Partition and Displacement (October 27) involves a panel discussion with four South Asian authors on the event that forever changed the destiny of the Indian Subcontinent seventy years later; Tayari Jones discusses her multi-award winning novel, An American Marriage (November 1) and TIFA's keynote event The (re)Making of a Movement: New Perspectives on the 1960s Counterculture (November 2), as addressed by the iconic American Civil Rights-era activist/revolutionary/author, Angela Davis.

Also, a special visual arts exhibit TIFA at 40: The Exhibition will do a limited run at the Artport Gallery (235 Queen's Quay West) for the duration of the fest (October 24-November 3) and a new archival podcast series, Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA, has been launched on the Toronto Public Library website in partnership with the Toronto Public Library and Library Archives Canada, both chronicling the festival's four decades in helping to shape Canadian and world literature onto the world stage.

***

Tickets now on sale. For more information, call 416-973-4000 or festivalofauthors.ca.

EDITION #239 - WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 23-29, 2019

Unorthodox quixotic road trip

Quichotte

by Salman Rushdie

396 pp.; Knopf Canada/Penguin Random House Canada

Hardcover, $34.95

Fiction

Book Review

Taking Miguel de Cervantes' masterpiece Don Quixote and turning it into a satirical road trip-cum-commentary through present-day America's heart(less)land is what is behind Salman Rushdie's twelfth novel, Quichotte -- thirty years after he became a household name with the still-controversial The Satanic Verses -- in exploring the search for love, redemption and loss in a world gone totally haywire, by no means is a deep and meaningful attempt to explain our current mindset that only Rushdie could write it.

The novel is actually two intertwined storylines: the first being the titular antihero Quichotte (pronounced key-SHOT), an aging travelling salesman roaming the roadways of the United States and managing to stay employed courtesy of his cousin Dr. R.K. Smile, who made his fortune through his Atlanta-based pharmaceutical company Smile Pharma by less than scrupulous means. Living a mundane existence with only the wasteland that is American television to keep loneliness at bay, Quichotte suddenly falls for the daytime talk show celebrity Miss Salma R, herself an transplant from India with her own personal demons, and decides to become her knight-errand of the heart.

Imagining a teenaged son into existence to be his companion on this journey and naming him Sancho, this unusual father-son duo go on a nationwide road trip in Quichotte's very dated if reliable Chevy Cruze that turns into a series of (mis)adventures of self-discovery from encountering naked racism, moral decay, bizarre behaviours and environmental disasters en route to New York City in order to claim his unrequited lady love's hand that she finds, through his love letters, repellent yet cautiously intriguing.

The second storyline is the storyteller behind the story, Sam DuChamp, an Indian ex-pat spy thriller author living in New York who decides to create Quichotte in line to his own personal losses of the people from his life: his estranged attorney sister living with her family in London and his way out-of-touch son from a previous marriage that he finds himself reconnecting with both of them under unusual circumstances.

Amalgamating real-world issues of the opioid epidemic, cyber-espionage and the Me Too Movement, pop culture references, fantasy and dashes of science-fiction; Rushdie takes a "grindhouse" approach to the novel with the elements of Cervantes' classic story making the bulk of it into a unique one suited to his talents. Unorthodox and a bit jarring for a novice Rushdie reader, it does offers some really wry observations and pokes that isn't too far from the truth about present-day Trumpian America at its worst -- along with the rest of the world -- that long-time readers will find familiar and readable.

Recently long-listed for this year's Booker Prize, Quichotte is an honest effort ranking right there with Rushdie's earlier titles The Moor's Last Sigh; Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights and the more recent The Golden House weaving its own momentous tale that acts more like a cautionary one for society, just like the one Cervantes did over 414 years ago.

***

Salman Rushdie makes a Toronto appearance for a promotional Q&A/signing tour for Quichotte at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas Street West) on September 30. NOTE: This event is SOLD OUT.

Sister pop duo's teen memoirs revelatory

High School

by Tegan Quin and Sarah Quin

369 pp.; Simon and Schuster Canada

Hardcover, $32

Non-Fiction/Autobiography

Book Review

Perhaps it is a bit too young for someone write one's memoirs at age 39, but there are certain exceptions to the rule as it goes for the award-winning Canadian indie pop superstar duo (and identical twin sisters) Tegan and Sarah Quin, who have broken the rules and music charts for close to two decades now with such hits as "Closer," "I Was a Fool," "Boyfriend" and the worldwide earworm smash of 2014, "Everything is Awesome" from The LEGO Movie. High School chronicles their teenage years in their native Calgary, Alberta is an openly candid account into the usual cocktail of misspent youth as much as it does in trying to find their own voices.

Opening with a brief glimpse into their premature births as the only children to their journeyman father and youth social worker mother in 1980 before their amicable divorce when the twins were four, and before long their mother's steelworker live-in boyfriend, Bruce, became a surrogate father to them, Tegan and Sara -- nine minutes apart in age -- and begin their story with their first day at Crescent Heights High School as grade-ten freshmen.

Calgary, in the early 1990s, was going through a superfluous economic recovery after the hazy, crippling boom-and-bust periods of the 1980s and, like any average teenager would, the girls were exposed to the rise of the youth culture of the period, with the arrival of grunge/alt-rock groups Nirvana (their all-time heroes), Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails.

When they weren't going through their regularly-scheduled sisterly quarrels from clothes to privacy, parental conflicts, adolescent angst moments or going to forbidden and oft-illegal raves they snuck out to on weekends whilst getting drunk and stoned, Sara and Tegan accidentally find Bruce's guitar one day in the garage and while fooling around with it they both discover their hidden talents for creating music, lyrical writing and singing with their very first song, "Tegan Didn't Go to School Today." And while the tune may sound as sophomoric as it does, it was the first step that have brought them from cutting their teeth in local gigs with their first band on weekends to gracing the major stages of the world. It also is a period of their sexual awakenings from the awkwardness of handling boys to the Quin Twins' mutual attraction towards women and dealing the homophobic attitudes of the day towards anyone in the LGBTQ spectrum which they've since become not only icons to, but as human rights advocates for the community at large.

High School is a concerted and well-written literary composition for first-time authors Tegan and Sara (as well as coming out with a companion album, Hey, I'm Just Like You with a September 27 release date) in being honest about their shenanigans, youthful drug and alcohol usage and grappling with their own sexualities, much as it does with their struggles making it into the music business, uncertainties of their destined career path despite being signed to a demo label at 18 and the success that have followed them since. Plus, there's countless of personal black-and-white personal photos never seen before is an added treat. A worthy read into one of this country's exceptional musical acts.

***

Tegan and Sarah perform at the Winter Gardens Theatre (189 Yonge Street) October 18-19 in support of Hey, I'm Just Like You. NOTE: This event is SOLD OUT.

Gamer girl power

SLAY

by Brittney Morris

321 pp.; Simon Pulse/Simon and Schuster Canada

Hardcover, $25.99

Teen Fiction

Book Review

Although it's been part of our lives for almost five decades, gamer culture in literature has remained predominately lilywhite and oftentimes male (Bash Bash Revolution;Otherland and Ready Player One come to mind) despite its massive universal appeal. SLAY is out to remedy this from first-time author Brittney Morris in this cyber-thriller/mystery for teenagers that guarantees to keep one guessing towards its most gratifying conclusion.

Seventeen-year old Kiera Johnson is your average middle-class teen living with her parents and sixteen-year old sister Steph in the manicured suburbia of Bellevue, Washington attending Jefferson Academy, who is just one of a handful of African-American kids in a predominately white school; planning on a post-secondary future to a African-American college along with her somewhat-militant boyfriend, Malcolm, in order to get away from being treated like the resident expert on black culture her white friends tiptoe around into what is (and isn't) politically correct.

Little does anyone know that she's the developer of a secret and popular multiplayer online role-playing card game called SLAY, with a legion of gamers in the hundred of thousands that's exclusively from across the African diaspora celebrating their own proud culture and personas. Being the coder and creator for the last three years, Kiera's online persona is "Emerald" -- the Queen and reigning champion -- who online battles with her challengers in a dozen regions that isn't any different from other role-player games, only one needs a special code to get in.

That all changes when a fellow teen player from Kansas City, Jamal Rice, is murdered in his sleep by another SLAY player over an account that accrues the game's crypto-play money, it garners a unexpected and unwarranted whirlwind of media attention and analysis who denounce the game for being a haven for criminal activity, exclusionist and even racist into who the creator is.

Despite her legion from all walks of life fiercely standing united against these allegations levied against their game, in particular one player and moderator from Paris, France under the persona "Cicada" who becomes her rock in all this; events takes a darker turn when a troll named "Dred" threatens to sue Kiera for "anti-white discrimination" unless she concedes her developer rights, player codes and her very own character of her labour of love in a risky winner-takes-all duel where she must find the strength to protect her online world and identity.

Morris brings a lot on the plate in discussing the impact of videogames on society, abusive relationships, racism and gender politics all tightly rolled into SLAY into a excitingly intelligent work that entices gamers and non-gamers alike with its realistic techno-babble and gamer lingua that rightfully earns its geek spot, as well as being an brainy "who-did-it-to-me" and interesting characters -- especially its rock-steady heroine Kiera -- to care about and root for.

Telgemeirer revisits more growing pains

Guts

by Raina Telgemeier

211 pp.; Graphix/Scholastic Canada

Softcover, $16.99

Graphic Novel/Autobiography

Book Review

After dabbling into magical-realism (and a little controversy) for 2016's Ghosts, the Eisner-winning cartoonist/graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier is back doing autobiographical works for Guts, a prequel of sorts to the 2010 bestseller Smile , which stands just as brilliantly and funny as her previous titles on those all-too universal anxieties and complexities of growing up.

Between the fourth- and fifth-grades in her native Oakland during the early 1980s, Raina developed a terrible stomach ache one night along with her mother and figures it's just some stomach flu issue or even puberty is starting to kick in. However, a growing list of phobias like emetophobia -- the fear of vomiting -- ranks the highest amongst them, among other things; that becomes obsessive from being afraid to eat food, going into her own home and affecting her school attendance so much so, that she's taken to see Lauren, a child therapist, to help her work out her panic attacks.

If that isn't enough stress in dealing with the supposed stigma behind counselling, her best friend Jane and her family are planning to move away soon and a classmate named Michelle who lives to taunt Raina on a near-daily basis makes it worse when the two of them start becoming friends, becoming another crutch for her, that the only solace and coping solution she can find is through her burgeoning talent as a cartoonist and artwork.

Telgemeier's artistry and script, along with the vivid colouring by Braden Lamb and Shelli Paroline, touches on facing and understanding the everyday fears children (and adults) overcome in an entertaining and didactic manner so well known to her fans and critics alike marks Guts as another winning addition to her series about adolescence that reaches on so many levels of accessibility for young and old.

***

Raina Telgemeier makes a Toronto appearance for a promotional Q&A/signing tour for Guts at the FirstOntario Arts Centre Milton (1010 Main Street East, Milton) on September 30. NOTE: This event is SOLD OUT.

EDITION #238 - WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 16-22, 2019

Photogenic Madiba

Mandela: Through the Eyes of a City (TO Live/Toronto Star)

Venue: Alan Lambert Galleria, Brookfield Place, 181 Bay Street

Dates/Times: Through September 27; Monday-Saturday 6 a.m.-2 a.m., Sunday 9 a.m.-2 a.m.

Admission/Information: FREE. Visit tolive.com or bfplto.com

Gallery Review

Many dignitaries have graced our fair city over the years, but none more so than Nelson Mandela who had -- and still has -- a certain affection and connection with Canada and Toronto, especially with the last twenty years of his life. On the eve of the arrival of the Museum of Civilization-sponsored Mandela: The Exhibition at Meridian Arts Centre next month (see end of review), Mandela: Through the Eyes of a City as curated and co-presented by the Toronto Star newspaper, whets an appetite with this mini-photo exhibit at Brookfield Place's Alan Lambert Galleria for a very limited run in recollecting memories of the African Liberation icon known as Madiba (Father of the Nation).

As a smattering of articles, sheet spreads and colour photos assembled from the major newspaper's archives of the three visits to the city over a fifteen-year period up until his death in 2013, it starts with the historical unconditional release from prison after 27 years for fighting against racial segregation in his native South Africa on February 11, 1990 at age 71, and the citywide (and global) celebration held on the Danforth with its party-like atmosphere and the articles of the day marking the event, commenting on its importance of the country looking to shed its pariah state status after years of international isolation.

Nothing could really match the excitement than his very first visit to Toronto, as part of his world "tour" in garnering the momentum of looking for outside aid to help South Africa gradually ease into its highly-delicate phase towards multiracial democracy; in the summer of that year with a parade, rally and a African National Congress (ANC) fundraiser in marking his visit with second wife Winnie in tow.

Nelson and Winnie Mandela at the Queen's Park rally on June 17, 1990, as taken by Toronto Star photographer Boris Spremo.

And, as previously mentioned, it is about Toronto's memories where the photos of a four-year old Luhli McGinn-Smith wearing a way oversized Mandela t-shirt at City Hall and Nelson and Winnie's arrival at Lester B. Pearson International Airport after a brief Ottawa visit and House of Commons address he'd given on June 17. Our first date, where the rally ended on the front steps of Queen's Park, was June 18 where 30,000 people crowded to hear Mandela speak was awash in euphoria and inspiration. And I ought to know for, I myself, was amongst the thousands in that maddening human throng of joy and was just close enough to the stage to see and hear the man speak, is one of my most cherished memories.

Toronto Star photographer Ken Faught captures Nelson Mandela greeting 40,000 schoolchildren at Skydome (now Rogers Centre) in 1998, during his second visit to the city for his charity the Canadian Friends of Nelson Mandela Children's Fund.

The second visit, September 23, 1998, pays regard to his appearance at Skydome (now Rogers Centre) now as the first post-apartheid president of South Africa with third and last wife Graca Machel, to address 40,000 local schoolchildren to help raise funds for the Canadian Friends of Nelson Mandela Children's Fund charity to help the homeless and abandoned kids in his country. It also proved to be his slightly ill-timed, as he'd unexpectedly waded into the mire of then-Ontario Premier Mike Harris' so-called "Common Sense" Revolution's unpopular cutbacks to education and the boos and jeers from the crowd at the provincial leader during his intro that came before he came onstage (he seemed a bit puzzled by it at the time), but nevertheless gave another stirring oration.

For his third and final Toronto visit in November 2001, now as a retired head of state and a life fully lived, he returned to not only receive an honorary doctorate from Ryerson University along with Graca, but also attend the opening of the rechristening of Park Public School after him -- the first one in the world outside his country -- that still bears his name. The photos of him comforting the emotionally-overwhelmed 13-year old student Carnelle Gabriel like a kindly grandfather are touching, but it's the portrait of the schoolchildren choir in the background and Mandela in his iconic African shirt giving off this aura, as captured by Star photographer Steve Russell; is the moment he is seen at his humblest.

When the Nobel Peace Prize laureate died on December 5, 2013, this city grieved along with the world with the Star posting their tributes that include Andrew Francis Wallace's photo of a man lighting a candle near Mandela's portrait on the steps of the makeshift memorial at Nelson Mandela Park Public School and the reprint of Toronto residents from total strangers to personal friends of his, go on to discuss on how he approached and touched their lives.

As an exhibit, Through the Eyes of a City keeps it all simple without too many details in the layout and in line with his spirit and example of reconciliation and forgiveness of his former jailers and enemies. But it is the reprint of op-ed columnist Rick Salatin's December 6th article Will there be Great Ones in the future? that sharply sums up Mandela's legacy and example: "I'd say it's more of the clarity of the battle you are fighting [against]. When you're on the outside and the issue is as stark as apartheid or a brutal military dictatorship, you take your stand and, provided you're willing to pay the price, the rest will follow."

***

Mandela: The Exhibition comes to Meridian Arts Centre (5040 Yonge Street; formerly Toronto Centre for the Arts) October 10-January 5. For tickets and information, visit mandelatheexhibition.com.

Shiva, Swedes and socials make up FFDN's fifth year

The sensational Brazilian dance troupe Grupo Corpo returns to Toronto for the fifth annual Fall for Dance North festival for two dates October 2-3.

Dance Preview

What started out as a showcase inspired from New York's City Center annual dance festival transplanted to Canada, now marks its fifth successive year as Fall for Dance North (FFDN) prepares to welcome eleven dance companies of leading and emerging artists from here and abroad October 2-6; including the return of its signature "dance studio without walls" Open Studio sessions at Union Station's West Wing (65 Front Street West) September 23-25 of select artists rehearsing free to the public.

"As I reflect on the past five years of FFDN, I am extremely proud of the wonderfully supportive and engaging partnerships we have built across the city, excited at the tremendous growth we have experienced, and honoured at the enthusiastic reception Toronto has shown," says festival Artistic Director Ilter Ibrahimof. "As we unveil our fifth anniversary season, we're delighted to present the very best in dance from Canada and around the world to Torontonians, including three FFDN commissions, seven live music performances, a world Indigenous dance-focused program and an increased number of free events at Union Station -- this year showcasing a special all-day social dance on October 5. With an added Sunday matinee performance, we will have more than sixteen-thousand seats on offer, giving even more audiences the chance to experience the festival. We look forward to seeing our loyal FFDN audiences and introducing new patrons to the power of dance, as our footprint continues its expansion across the GTA."

Sweden's Skanes Dansteater presents the North American premiere of Dare to Wreck , a highly-nuanced duet on body manipulation and intense physicality with a wheelchair for Fall for Dance North 2019.

Program One dates October 2 and 3 at Meridian Hall (1 Front Street East; formerly Sony Centre for the Performing Arts) has Toronto Dance Theatre's GH 5.0 , choreographer/Artistic Director Christopher House's 1983 masterwork Glass Houses as reduxed by guest choreographer Hanna Kiel that reimagines selections from the production in marking the TDT's 50th anniversary show Glass Fields in 2018 with live music accompaniment from electro-acoustic percussionist Greg Harrison; the North American premiere of Sigan from the New Zealand Dance Company, that explores the qualities of meditation and attack from the traditional Korean martial art of taekkyeon in its movement vocabulary, which integrates the whole body in a quicksilver style by choreographer Kim Jae Duk; Skanes Dansteater of Sweden presents the North American premiere of Dare to Wreck , a highly-nuanced duet on body manipulation and intense physicality as choreographed and performed by Madeleine Mansson and wheelchair performer Peder Nilsson and the long-awaited return to Toronto of Brazilian favourites Grupo Corpo and their Canadian premiere of Danca Sinfonica , made of elements from previous repertoire works created by the company in celebration of its 40th anniversary in 2015.

October 4 and 5's Program Two has the acclaimed Madras-born, Parisian-based Indian classical dancer Shantala Shivalingappa performing her solo work, Shiva Tarangam , as a tribute to the Lord of Dance Shiva partly danced on a brass plate to a chosen poem with live musical performance including singing, flute, veena and percussion; the FFDN-commissioned world premiere of local street dance sensation Caroline "Lady C" Fraser's Conversation featuring live music by re.verse; The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude performed by the National Ballet of Canada remounts this 1996 William Forsythe work of classical ballet -- its verticality, balance and symmetry -- and places it under immense pressure, generating high-speed twisting and torquing along oblique angles and skewed lines and FFDN commission FIDDLE EMBRACE is a collaboration piece by Montreal fiddler Anne Plamondon and eighteen dancers from Toronto's Ryerson School of Performance fully commit to embodying her movement world with resonance and sensitivity.

Bulareyaung Dance Company from Taiwan, incorporates the aspects of their Indigenous Austronesian peoples of the Luluna polyphonic singing and performing styles of the Bunun for LUNA , as part of FFDN 2019's Indigenous dance programme.

At its second venue at Ryerson Theatre (43 Gerrard Street East), Program Three on October 4 and 5 dedicates First Nations dance expressions with The New Zealand Dance Company's In Transit by Maori choreographer/dancer/video artist Louise Potiki Bryant evokes a textured weave of Earth and beings, of time now and time eternal, courtesy of the dance ensemble through light projections, the aspects of the kapa haka (Maori performing arts) and various rituals of encounter; two-spirited Ojibway contemporary dance artist Cody Berry offers an abstract acknowledgment of the history and acceptance of this non-translatable, non-binary Indigenous identity in the FFDN-commissioned production, Mani.Deux ; Choice Cut by Australian Jasmin Sheppard, a Tagalak/Kurtjar Aboriginal dancer-choreographer with Irish, Chinese and Hungarian ancestry parallels her solo of her experience being a First Nations woman and the colonization of Australia and the Bulareyaung Dance Company embraces Indigenous practices of the Taiwanese tribes, under the leadership of choreographer Bulareyaung Pagarlava for LUNA , which incorporates aspects of the pasibutbut , a complex Indigenous Luluna polyphonic singing and the performing style of malastapang from the Bunun ritual praising the dancers' achievements of announcing their process of artistic and spiritual growth.

And also free at Union Station will be Habiter sa memoire , a four-hour real time dance within the confines of a transparent 3.6 x 3.6-metre cube by Montreal's Caroline Laurin-Beaucage (October 3-4) inviting the public to witness a dance that constantly evolves under the effects of time and THE BIG SOCIAL (October 5) offers an opportunity for the general public to dive into the movement of three distinct social dance styles, all with live music featuring swing, tango and Haudenosaunee First Nations social dances, as hosted in partnership with the Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, Lindy Hop Revolution and Bulent & Lina Tango.

***

Tickets now on sale. For more information, visit ffdnorth.com or meridianhall.ca.

EDITION #237 - WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 9-15, 2019

Lepage's sparkling theatrical jewel

The celebrated Quebecois theatre artisan opens his dream home, Le Diamant, as a showcase venue for local to international performing artists in Quebec City

Arts Feature

QUEBEC CITY, QUEBEC -- While working on his first Cirque du Soleil project, KA , which continues its residency status at the MGM Grand Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas with its still-innovative multipart floating stage; noted dramaturge Robert Lepage realized that he needed a bigger and permanent workspace as an incubator in order to fulfill his larger-than-life (and smaller) productions for his theatre company, Ex Machina.

That was fifteen years ago. On August 30th, Lepage finally inaugurated Le Diamant -- The Diamond -- in his hometown of Quebec City's Place d'Youville area, literally steps away from historical sites The Plains of Abraham battlefield, stone fortifications and Old Quebec City district; after three years of construction and CAD$57 million in costs (CAD$30 million from the Government of Quebec, CAD$10 million from the Canadian government, CAD$7 million from the city and CAD$10 million in private donations, including CAD$1 million from Japanese food-distribution businessman Takeya Kaburaki, whose company sells Quebec's maple syrup in Japan as well as sponsored Ex Machina, Cirque du Soleil and choreographer Marie Chouinard's shows in Japan, plus CAD$500,000 from Lepage himself) and was open to the public with over 3,000 people attending -- including myself -- the quickly sold-out ticketed guided tours during the Labour Day Weekend given out for free with some sneak previews by local-based performing art companies of what the venue has to offer the arts scene on a local, provincial and national level.

Le Diamant (966 Rue St-Jean) sits within a Second Empire-styled building, complete with its mansard roof and a central turret, built in 1879 by architect Joseph-Ferdinand Peachy and originally was home to the city's YMCA for nearly 60 years. After the Y moved out in 1947, it underwent a series of ownerships and businesses that included a concert hall, radio station CKCV-AM's studios from 1926 to 1974 (which has been off the air since 1990) on its third floor and Cinema de Paris, which was once part of the long-defunct Famous Players cinema chain; from 1948 to 1983 which then fell into neglect and decay, despite it being declared a heritage building in 1984 by the Quebec government.

By the time Lepage and Ex Machina bought the building in 2011, it needed a lot of work. Previous demolitions weren't kind to the structure, along with massive water infiltration damage to the interior, original stained-glass pieces and a lobby chandelier were stolen and years of vandalism. And despite their best efforts to preserve it, they reluctantly had to dismantle the Cinema de Paris' famous sign during the winter of 2017, which had suffered an interior electrical fire in late 2007 (but did videotape it for its archives).

With architectural firms Coarchitecture, In Situ and Jacques Plante Architecte doing the painstaking refurbishing and reconstruction, its highly visible exterior is its diagonally crystal-like geometric glass atrium that brings a lot of light inside and aluminium alloy to the roof and turret. As for its interior, it's a touch of minimalist tones and clean lines used with wood and concrete throughout by senior principal architect Marie-Chantal Croft of Coarchitecture, brings out a gentle warmth and hominess that will certainly come in handy during the region's chilly winter seasons.

Quebecois multidisciplinary artist Claudie Gagnon's art installation "Atom or the fruit of the stars" adorns Le Diamant's main entrance.

In place of the old Cinema de Paris sign for Le Diamant's main entrance facade is the art installation "Atom or the fruit of the stars" created by Montreal-born multidisciplinary artist Claudie Gagnon. By its 4.5-metre circular diameter and nearly 2,500-kilogram weight, her work consists of five layers of multifaceted laminated glass superimposed in different angles and surrounded by a strip of steel covered with aluminium and a lighting device composed of integrated fibre-optics.

Meant in reference to the cape on which the city is built upon, Cap Diamant, and the precious stone which French explorer Jacques Cartier had thought he brought back to France from the area's cliffs (they actually were quartzes, much to his dismay), the glazed, translucent elements of the work impresses yet never overwhelms the venue itself. "The title of the work refers to the atom as an elementary constituent symbol of matter made up of several fundamental particles, as an object consisting of a quantity of other elements," said the Quebec City-based artist. "Also, in a poetic way, in India, the legend tells that the diamonds, exploited since 6,000 years [ago], are represented like the fruits of the stars, meaning that they were sown by these stars to be harvested by the humans."

So what's the venue like? Highly accessible, after a ride to the top in a large elevator, its rooftop balcony on the fifth floor gives a nice view of downtown Quebec City, ramparts of Le Citadelle and the Place d'Youville area, which has been the heart of the city's marketplace and cultural district since its foundation; comes complete with a full kitchen that makes an ideal spot for post-performance receptions during the spring and summer, with a row of Japanese kabuki mask art in honour of the first show of Le Diamant's inaugural season, Lepage/Ex Machina's 1994 seven-hour classic production The Seven Streams of the River Ota (now running a limited engagement through September 15).

The fifth floor also contains Studio Lepage Beaulieu, named after the owner and his sister/business partner/Le Diamant President Lynda Beaulieu; which is Lepage's personal state-of-the-art playground for research and creation that can also hold 100-plus people in a proscenium configuration with a balcony area for large-scale productions that presented the Glenn Gould Protege Prize-winning L'Orchestre d'Hommes-Orchestres (The Orchestra of Men-Orchestras) and photographer Jacynthe Carrier's video installation collaboration "Defoncer des murs/Break Down Walls" in full surround stereo.

Surpassing the fourth floor that mostly holds the administrative offices of Le Diamant, Ex Machina and partner Carrefour international de theatre de Quebec, the third floor foyer had marionette company Theatre Pupulus Mordicus' Butterfly , a rendition of Puccini's tragic romantic opera Madame Butterfly ; was accompanied by pianist Maurice LaForest and soprano Marie-Michele Roberge and a puppeteer sailing a mobile ship across the area came complete with a papier-mache sculpture, was a nice touch to the preserved aged and wooded columns.

Before coming to an end of the tour to its main theatre space, Salle Hydro-Quebec, an onsite canvas mural in Glacis Hall by Montreal graffiti legend Zilon made his mark with a dazzling arrangement of fluorescent colours and Keith Haring-inspired designs, shows that Le Diamant will give a temporary exhibit space for visual artists (as previously demonstrated on the fifth floor).

The ground floor venue is a technologically-advanced and immersive "black box" theatre that holds 650 theatregoers is the venue's most impressive in size and acoustics (there is no permanent seating in either spaces as to be more economically accommodating to shows and rehearsal work, but will have temporary seating), which housed neo-circus outfit Theatre-a-Tempo's totally amazing En Coulisses (Behind the Scenes) from its collage of high-wire, springboard and Wheel of Death acts accompanied by a live orchestra, as to whet appetites for upcoming circus companies Flip Fabrique's Blizzard (September 24-28), Les 7 Doights/Seven Fingers' Passagers (October 18-20) and Compagnia Finzi Pasca's Pe Te. (October 30-November 1).

As much as it is Ex Machina's new home, Le Diamant intends to be a home for everyone in Quebec's arts industry, including its local film festival, summer festival and comedy festival ComediHa!, and a host of Canadian and international performing artists that also has the First Nations theatre company Menuentakuan's La ou le sang se mele (Where Blood is Mixed) (October 8-12) and popular Albertan puppeteer Ronnie Burkett's The Daisy Theatre (November 6-9) as much as it will be a tourist attraction and cultural destination, as Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez stated: "This is a magnificent place where our artists and creators can better express their art and make us experience a wide range of emotions. Our government is proud to have contributed to the creation of this cutting-edge performance space, where Quebecois and Canadian talent can take centre stage."

His provincial counterpart, the Minister of Culture and Communications Nathalie Roy, echoed the same sentiment. "Le Diamant will become a true performing arts hub that features Quebecois work, while also introducing show from elsewhere to discover," she said. "Without a doubt, the theatre will be a gathering place where performing arts lovers will be able to see large-scale productions. It's an example of a philanthropy model that the government would like to see more of in Quebec, and it proves that concentrating public and private efforts creates leverage to elevate the arts and culture."

Robert Lepage (centre) hangs out with pro-wrestler Shaun Spears (left), Le Diamant General Manager Bernard Gilbert (centre-right) and Matt Angel (right), which the wrestlers will perform at the North Shore Professional Wrestling Gala at the venue on October 5; during a media conference in June outlining their first season line-up.

But no one could be more proud of Le Diamant than the owner and operator himself. "Last year, I was expecting to be terribly excited when the big (opening) day was coming. But it's been a month since we left [our old theatre space since 1997, now taken over by Les Gros Becs, a Quebec children's theatre company] La Caserne (The Barracks) and we settled, so every day was a source of delight and discovery," Lepage said. "It's ten times, a hundred times better than we thought. It's rare to say that of a project, because there are always cuts (and) compromises. Nevertheless, it remains an extraordinary place. It is comparable to large halls in which I played everywhere, for example, in Athens or Barcelona. It is an absolutely extraordinary place. In addition, all the public aspect is very beautiful, very elegant, very inviting."

And already the word about the new performing arts centre has gotten around fast, according to Lepage. "By credit card (phone sales), we see a lot of [the Montreal area code of] 514. There are also people calling from New York (and) from Toronto," he said. "It is certain that when Le Diamant has rolled, that it will be embedded in [visiting] habits and will have a reputation, this presence will become more and more obvious."

***

Le Diamant is now open for its first fully-scheduled performing arts season. For more information, phone 1-418-692-5353 or visit ladiamant.ca/en/.

Whimsical hinterland

The Very, Very Far North

by Dan Bar-el; Illustrations by Kelly Pousette

272 pp.; Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon and Schuster Canada

Softcover, $16.99

Fiction/Children's Literature

Book Review

Our great white North has always been a rich reservoir for storytelling by Inuit and non-Inuit alike for ages in this country. The award-winning Vancouver-based children's author and educator Dan Bar-el crafts his own set of tales with The Very, Very Far North consisting of a cast of arctic animals (and a couple of humans) engaged in a series of adventures for 8-12 year olds who will find the stories fun and easily readable.

Opening with the arrival of a young polar bear, Duane, in a place calling itself the Very, Very Far North and past the Cold, Cold Ocean one summery Thursday where he stumbles upon a old shipwreck and its only resident, C.C. the snow owl who is the local scientist with a formally manner and body contact issues who helps him find a home in a nearby cave.

Settling into his new surroundings, Duane -- who also has this uncanny talent of giving names -- comes into contact with all the other local fauna he easily makes friends with, from Handsome the aristocratically fussy and vain musk ox; a huffy militaristic-minded puffin calling himself Major Puff, who cohabits with the talented baker Twitch the hare; the mischief-making arctic vixen, Magic, who's always getting Duane into one kind of misadventure or another to the shy and ultra-quiet caribou doe simply called Boo.

Then there's the visiting landscape artist, Squint, who travels to the area on occasion to do his work that first scares the friendly neighbourhood wanderlust-prone polar bear in the fear he will "capture" his subjects onto his canvas forever and Sun Girl the mysterious Inuit girl with her dogsled team known as the Pack who drop by, mostly to get Duane out of a couple of close shaves.

Bar-el certainly has a way to make his characters and stories amusing through an outsider narrative structure manner similar to A.A. Milne or Roald Dahl, with the illustrations to match by illustrator Kelly Pousette to accompany the text in soft charcoal-like sketches to make The Very, Very Far North whimsical and entertaining about looking at the simplicities of life and letting the day take you instead of sticking to the all-too structured lives that we live. If there are more adventures of Duane and company to come after this book, it should be worth the wait.

EDITION #236 - WEEK OF AUGUST 26-SEPTEMBER 1, 2019

Alegria: behind Cirque's revolutionary evolution about revolution and chaos

Acrobats rehearse for the Powertrack act for Cirque du Soleil's Alegria, returning to Toronto starting September 12.

Past and current creators reflect on the shaping of Cirque du Soleil's masterpiece show, Alegria , on its silver anniversary

Theatre Preview

It's been oftentimes said that Alegria made Cirque du Soleil for what it is today rather than the Quebecois-based entertainment company who created it twenty-five years ago. As a new (and old) generation gets ready to see the revamped version -- with its oddly audaciously-sounding if fitting subtitle, In a New Light -- set to return to its old Torontonian spot at Ontario Place (955 Lakeshore Boulevard West) beginning September 12 for a three-month run on its silver anniversary tour, the original and present show creators put in their recollections on what the show means to them and how it remains a evergreen creation with its message on change and hope in times of darkness and uncertainty.

Alegria was born right after the painstaking development of Cirque's firstborn Las Vegas residency show in 1993, Mystere, as show creator-director Franco Dragone puts it. "Mystere had been a real battleground [from getting it done]," he remembers. "I don't know if it's because we were dealing with chaos as a theme, but it was really chaotic. It [was] the first show we did in a theatre (space). No one in Cirque du Soleil had ever done that [at the time]. The shows had always been presented under a big top. Just as we were really getting to understand the big top, [then] pow!, we were doing a show in a theatre."

The idea came to Dragone while he was dealing with all the technical problems with Mystere. "While all of that was happening, we were already thinking about the next show. At one point, I was with (Cirque founder) Guy Laliberte at a restaurant in one of the Las Vegas casinos and I told him the next show should be sad, very heavy, really hard: 'Alegria! Alegria! Alegria!' It's Italian for 'Joy! Joy! Joy!' Where I come from, that's what you say when you're in pain. It means life goes on...That's where the title came from. First we had the title, and then we came up with the rest of the show."

"We're from the streets. We don't want to forget where we came from," said Laliberte, who has since semi-retired from Cirque after selling off a huge percentage back in 2015 and now runs a new entertainment company, Rouge Lune, but still offers creative input from time to time. "When we lived in the streets [in Cirque's early days], it touched us to see young people with no future, who thought so little of themselves." Recalling his own privileged upbringing in Quebec, he added: "I was fortunate. I had loving parents. I had a good home. I always knew I'd have three meals a day and a roof over my head. The rest has been a gift from life. But I know there were a lot of people who had it worst."

Jean-Guy Legault, the current director of Alegria , shares his vision for the show and how its timeless message of resilience inspired its reinvention: "People are familiar with reinterpretations, particularly of plays like Shakespeare and the other great classics. Doing this [for Alegria] is kind of a first for us. But, what we found interesting in Alegria is that its message, the [original] reason it was created is still relevant today. The piece explores the theme of resilience quite a bit. It's about a kingdom in turmoil because it had lost its king and the main character, Mr. Fleur, who is still alive, tries to take over. He was the king's jester and in the kingdom, in which is not quite stagnant but has been stuck in its ways for a long time.

Alegria's de facto ringmaster, Mr. Fleur (right), engages with the Aristrocrats, who all represent the show's old order refusing to bend to the winds of change that will soon encroach upon them.

"The status quo gets challenged and a wind of change gets blown in from the street by the (powertrack) Bronx (characters). So, this is something that we can sense strongly today, a desire for change in that can be felt throughout the world. For us, it made sense that what we did with the reinterpretation of the show should be consistent with its message."

"In our relationship with the powers-that-be, we always say: 'Damn, our leaders are no good, they're this, they're that,'" Dragone reiterates. "But if they weren't there, I think we'd run around like chickens with our heads cut off, we'd be lost. There's a relationship between the king and the fool: they're interdependent. Without the fool, there's no king. Without the king, there's no fool. And we, as nomadic street performers [back then], we're like society's fool, we can help society move forward. It's a dialogue."

Like all revolutions, they come and go as the constant reminder that change is always imminent and this is not lost on Cirque itself. Learning what they learned from their thirty-five years as a company, they've done a refurbishment of the show from (big) top to bottom from their costuming to set designs by bringing in new creators and retaining some of the old ones as not to make it look and sound antiquated.

Take Set Designer Anne-Seguin Poirier, in maintaining the spirit of the show with the old and new of it. "It really was a great challenge to launch a project with a view on completely revamping the visuals of Alegria ," she said. "We did a deep dive to understand what the original version's visual concept was, then we asked ourselves:'How could we adapt this to 2019 [from 1994]?'"

That, unfortunately, has a dark origin story as original Set Designer Michel Crete remembered his inspiration in coming up it, based on a true-life tragedy. "While we were putting the show together, this very young boy was kidnapped and killed by two other boys in England (the 1994 James Bulger incident in Liverpool), and we couldn't get over it." he said. "I remember thinking, 'How can a human being pretend to have the right to exercise such power over another human being?' What really struck me was that it was children acting in such an evil way. For me, Alegria is really about the abuse of power."

"Today, we associate resilience with a sense of humanity, so we wanted to connect with the characters," Legault explains further. "You can see their hair -- they're not all necessary wigs; the makeup is done in a way that makes it possible to recognize the performers; we've changed some of the costumes. People often ask me about the (White) Singer, but what exactly is the Singer? She's the voice of the show, so that led us to ask 'Where does Alegria come from?' It's a cry used in moments of great distress...[if] we're going to overcome these difficult times. In fact, it's a cry of hope. You have to feel that the person who sings it, who gives it wings, hasn't had a particularly easy life. It's a cry of resilience."

This is particularly true in the costume department, as original costumer designer Dominique Lemieux, who has designed costumes for the company since 1989 -- including for Alegria in 1994 -- redesigned the 85 to 100 costumes for the new show. One example are the old guard characters known as the Aristocrats, a.k.a. the Old Birds; as they are more human-looking and less on the "(original) bugs [and] we see more faces and bodies; makeup will be lighter and heads smaller," she summarizes. For example, instead of the bulky costumes of the Old Birds of the past, the Aristocrats "have deformities in their bodies, but are much closer to the body itself like a belly bump or a bump in the back. It's as if they had accumulated in their bodies all their way of seeing the world and that it had distorted them."

The patina, a process of artificial aging, is omnipresent even on the costumes of the Gentiles. "We want to feel that life is still trouble!" Lemieux stated. "We see a lot of humanity because in reality, we walk in the dust, in the ice, the wind, the rain...and despite all the 'despite,' we remain hopeful."

The Syncronized Trapeze Duo, is among one of Alegria's highlighted acts.

As it is in every Cirque show, the music remains its heart and magic. The original Rene Dupere soundtrack, including its highly memorable title track, underwent a modernistic makeover by noted Quebec composer and show Musical Director Jean-Phi Goncalves, as he put it: "(For example,) 'Vai Vedrai' is a wonderful song with beautiful lyrics. A mother is telling her child to leave, "Vai," to build a life, to discover the madness of mankind. The marriage of the music and the message is still moving today.

"We are working with all of Rene Dupere's songs created for Alegria 's first iteration twenty-five years ago. Our goal is to refresh it. It's like taking the piece apart and reassembling it differently. The [original] song is an accordion waltz. We're no long in that musical universe, so we removed the accordion. I wanted to maintain that intensity with high-pitched violins. Audiences can expect surprises, but they will recognize the Alegria they know. The goal is to disorient them without losing them," he assures old fans of the beloved soundtrack. "There is poetry in this new version. I consider my work as that of a designer, to some extent. I take the subject, which in this case is a song, strip it down, then dress it up differently. The essence of the song is its melody, lyrics, chords and so on. All that is already there and we'll keep it. So, the soul of Alegria will always be there."

While some may protest some of these changes to the original production, Legault defends the process as a part of life, as it is a part of Cirque's motive of operation, while honouring its legacy at the same time. "We can't do it exactly the same way as it was done originally, that would be going against the show's own message," he said. "In fact, Franco always used to say, 'I don't make museum pieces.' So we're not going to take his work and remake it the same way. The idea is to reinvent it and deliver something new.

"So we're looking at something that gets lighter as it progresses, in terms of both the stage lighting and the angels' costumes which look slightly dirty, and we can sense that at the beginning they're wearing the scars of what they suffered on Earth. But as it goes on, they become lighter [and] cleaner. We're creating a wind of change; we're keeping the show's DNA, but approaching it differently and making it relevant for 2019 [and beyond], which is a different time, in a sense."

***

Alegria 's Toronto engagement run begins September 12. For tickets and information, call 1-877-924-7783 or visit cirquedusoleil.com.

Joker's wild over TIFF

Joaquin Phoenix stars as the future Clown Prince of Crime in Todd Phillips' hotly-awaited tragic origin tale behind Batman's iconic arch-nemesis, Joker, making its North American premiere at TIFF.

Comicdom's vilest supervillian, The Boss and Mr. Rogers are visiting our neighbourhood for the film fest's 44th edition this fall

Toronto International Film Festival 2019 Preview

Twenty-nine world premieres, seven international premieres, thirteen North American premieres and seven Canadian premieres will make up part of the 300-plus films of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) line-up this September 5 to 15 -- with a record number of fifty percent of titles directed or co-directed by women for the Galas programme alone -- that include rock icons Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and Robbie Robertson in their own cinematic projects and the fest's first-ever inclusion of a major comic book screen adaptation of the highly-anticipated origin tale behind Batman's greatest nemesis, Joker (September 9).

"Some of the year's biggest films will land in Toronto this September," said festival head and Artistic Director Cameron Bailey. "We're thrilled to unveil Galas and Special Presentations that bring the brightest lights in film to our Festival audience. Our new programming team has been hard at work for months to deliver the compelling stories, acclaimed filmmakers and top onscreen talent that mark our two highest-profile sections."

"I'm delighted to step into my first Festival as TIFF Co-Head to such a powerful slate of films," echoed Joana Vicente, co-head and Executive Director of TIFF in agreement. "Fast-paced, boundary-pushing, satirical -- this lineup has films representing every corner of the cinematic landscape on top of a strong number of World Premieres. It's a pleasure to be able to share these films with audiences for the first time."

Among the line-up are the aforementioned Joker; TIFF Opening Night film Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band (September 5); Eddie Murphy's blaxplotation docu-dramedy Dolemite Is My Name (September 7); fast-fashion industry satire Greed (September 7) from veteran Brit filmmaker Michael Winterbottom; Thom Zimny returning with Western Stars (September 12) on Bruce Springsteen's most recent and highly-acclaimed album -- and co-directed by The Boss himself; Atom Egoyan's latest Guest of Honour (September 10); Marielle Heller's Mr. Rogers biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (September 7) with Tom Hanks playing the children's TV legend; art heist thriller The Burnt Orange Heresy (September 11) co-starring Rolling Stones headman Jagger; DreamWorks' animated fantasy-adventure Abominable (September 7); Fernando Meirelles (City of God) is back with his papal transitional docu-dramedy The Two Popes (September 9) to Closing Night premiere Radioactive (September 15), Marjane Satrapi's (Persepolis) live-action adaptation of the graphic novel biography of Marie Curie.

"Through our In Conversation With... series, TIFF is proud to give fans and film lovers an opportunity to connect with and learn from the most talented artists working in film and television today," said Christoph Straub, Lead Programmer of In Conversation With... and TIFF Senior Manager, Adult Learning. "This year's lineup includes award-winning creators who have helped shape the discourse in the entertainment industry, moving it forward and charting new territory on the big and small screens. We are incredibly honoured to have these leaders join us for a series of empowering and exciting conversations." Audiences will have the opportunity to hear about the fascinating careers -- both in front of and behind the cameras -- of Michael B. Jordan & Jamie Foxx (September 7), Antonio Banderas (September 8), Allison Janney (September 9) and Kerry Washington (September 12) during intimate onstage conversations at TIFF Lightbox (350 King Street West).

The inaugural Special Events section has triple-platinum folk-rock artists The Lumineers bringing III , a visual companion to their upcoming titular third album (release date September 13). Split into three chapters, the visual album follows three generations of a working-class family in the American Northeast. Following the September 8 premiere screening, the band will hit the stage for a live performance featuring exclusive numbers from the album, followed by a Q&A with the band and director Kevin Phillips; One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (September 13) is master Inuit auteur Zacharias Kunuk's fictionalized account of an encounter between respected Inuk elder Noah Piugattuk and a government emissary about colonialism and Inuit/settler relations; celebrating the incredible career of the late "Mother of French New Wave Cinema" Agnes Varda, her final work Varda by Agnes (September 6) is an unpredictable self-reflective documentary on her experience as a director with a following Q&A with notable women filmmakers; brother actors and Antarctic Ambassadors for Greenpeace Carlos Bardem and Academy Award-winner Javier Bardem star and co-produce Sanctuary (September 11) of their submarine journey exploring the coldest sea on earth and their attempt to raise awareness of the eco-activist group's initiatives with a follow-up Q&A with the actors and director Alvaro Longoria and Barry Avrich's David Foster: Off the Record (September 9) exclusively looks on the life and career of the legendary Canadian super-producer with director and Foster doing a post-screening Q&A.

Marginalized young lovers in Senegal desperately seek a better life by any means necessary, in the 2019 Cannes Grand Prix-winning feature debut from Mati Diop, Atlantics.

The TIFF Docs section will open with the world premiere of The Cave (September 5), about an underground hospital led by a female doctor in war-torn Syria from Academy Award-nominated director Feras Fayyad; Barbara Kopple's Desert One (September 8), chronicling the disastrous 1980 Delta Force mission to rescue American hostages in Iran; And We Go Green (September 8), about racers in the Formula E competition for electric cars, directed by Fisher Stevens and Malcolm Venville and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio to Eva Orner's Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (September 10) about the rise and dramatic fall of the noted yoga teacher who faced multiple lawsuits filed against him for sexual misconduct.

First-time documentarians Bryce Dallas Howard's Dads (September 6) explores fatherhood with leading comedians and her own director father, Ron Howard; Ebs Burnough, who previously served in the Obama Administration, makes his debut with The Capote Tapes (September 7), about American writer Truman Capote; My English Cousin (September 6), Karim Sayad's portrait of his real-life Algerian cousin who rediscovers the challenges of returning home after 15 years away; Russian politics and the rise of capitalism are examined in Gabe Polsky's Red Penguins (September 5), recounting the true comical tale of American hustlers bringing NHL-style hockey to Russia back in the 1990s and Alex Gibney's Citizen K (September 7) profiles maverick oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky who dared to turn against Vladimir Putin's autocratic grip; Mark Cousins' Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema (September 7-11), the recently completed 14-hour exploration of female directors around the world, which the first four hours, executive produced by Tilda Swinton; were previewed at last year's TIFF; Daniel Gordon's The Australian Dream (September 8) tells the story of Australian Aboriginal soccer legend Adam Goodes who battled racism in the AFL and Lina Al Abed's Ibrahim: A Fate to Define (September 11) centres on the mysterious disappearance of her Palestinian secret agent father.

"Contemporary World Cinema is a place where different cultures meet," said Kiva Reardon, International Programmer and new Lead Programmer for the section. "The vision for the programme is to help expand the cinematic canon and push the definition of what has previously been deemed as fundamental. This is a selection of essential, urgent cinema. It has been a pleasure to work with my fellow programmers in this new role to offer bold stories and invigorating films that ask our audiences to reflect on their position in the world."

The African continent is heavily represented by eight films with Atiq Rahimi's third feature, Our Lady of the Nile (September 5), which follows a group of Rwandan girls in a Catholic boarding school foreshadowing the nation's 1994 Genocide; the feminist road trip Flatland (September 11) and Jahmil X.T. Qubeka's hard-boiled boxing drama Knuckle City (September 7) both from South Africa; Algerian Civil War drama Terminal Sud (September 9); the Sudanese coming-of-ager You Will Die at Twenty (September 9) and Senegalese Mati Diop's winner of the Grand Prix Winner at Cannes exploration of migration, Atlantics (September 9; and who is also the recipient of TIFF's first Mary Pickford Award to be presented at the TIFF Tribute Gala on the same date).

Mattie Do, Laos' first and only female director to ever present a film to the fest, couples family loss and time-travelling in The Long Walk (September 10); Lijo Jose Pellissery's Jallikattu (September 6)'s bold allegory on toxic masculinity in a remote Indian village; Balloon (September 8), directed by Tibetan director Pema Tseden, tells the conflicting struggles of a family dealing with China's former one-child policy and Yaron Zilberman returns with the world premiere of Incitement (September 7), the first-ever Israeli fiction film to depict the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Myriam Verreault's first narrative feature is the bittersweet screen adaptation of Naomi Fontaine's acclaimed novel Kuessipan, looking at two Quebec Innu childhood friends facing very different futures.

"Supporting the voices of Indigenous people through film is a priority for TIFF," said Bailey on TIFF's efforts in bringing the works of Indigenous filmmakers and artists to the fest. "We support the calls by leaders in Indigenous screen storytelling for more films to be made and for greater narrative sovereignty. We're inspired by this year's films that shine a light on Indigenous stories of the present and past and we're excited to help bring these vital stories to global audiences."

As previously mentioned with Kunuk's One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk and Gordon's The Australian Dream , Alanis Obomsawin's Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger (September 10) is the Abenaki Metis filmmaker's 53rd film documenting the short life of a young boy from Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba, born with a rare muscle disorder, about blatant governmental disregard; Mi'gmaq writer/director and 2010 TIFF Filmmaker Lab alum Jeff Barnaby returns with the horror-thriller -- and TIFF's Midnight Madness Opening Night Film -- Blood Quantum (September 5), in which an isolated Mi'gmaq community discover they are the only humans immune to a zombie plague; Myriam Verreault's Kuessipan (September 8), based on Naomi Fontaine's novel of the same name, follows two Innu girls growing up as best friends in north-eastern Quebec and acclaimed Maori director Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok and forthcoming Thor: Love and Thunder in 2021) will be honoured at the TIFF Tribute Gala with the inaugural TIFF Ebert Director Award and presents the world premiere of his anti-hate satire, Jojo Rabbit (September 8).

And there's plenty of freebies to be found with the ever-popular opening weekend (September 6-8) Festival Street along King West and Peter Streets and University Avenue with special performances, patios and food trucks; brand ambassadors will hit King Street on the morning of September 5 to hand out thousands of vouchers for Festival films and year-round screenings at TIFF Lightbox to passersby; the first-ever TTC Free Screening of a Festival title, which will be announced through TIFF's social media channels the evening prior; on September 8 at 12 p.m. at Roy Thomson Hall (60 Simcoe Street; please note that the TTC Free Screening is first-come, first-served to those with a PRESTO card or TTC transfer) and nightly free screenings schedule includes Amy Heckerling's romantic comedy classic Look Who's Talking , Lone Scherfig's coming-of-age tale An Education, Gurinder Chadha's Bollywood-stylized Jane Austin classic, Bride and Prejudice and Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, Whip It (dates/times TBA); plus free TIFF Cinematheque screenings of the South African apartheid drama A Dry White Season (September 10), Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (September 5), Italian classics Fists in the Pocket (September 5) and The Pickpocket (September 12), the Chilean historical drama No (September 9) and Herbert Ross' whodunit The Last of Sheila (September 8).

***

Individual tickets go on sale September 2. For more information, call 1-888-258-8433 or visit tiff.net.

EDITION #235 - WEEK OF AUGUST 19-25, 2019

Peter Fonda (1940-2019)

Cartoon Tribute

A "simple" comic strip tribute to actor, activist and 1960s countercultural icon Peter Fonda, best known for his maverick biker role of Wyatt in the 1969 cult classic film, Easy Rider.

Art's boisterous boiling points

Art (Soulpepper Theatre)

Marilyn and Charles Baille Theatre, Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane

Friday, August 17; 7:30 p.m.

Theatre Review

Can an art piece cause such calamity that it could almost depreciate and derail a friendship or two? That is what Yasmina Reza's internationally-acclaimed comedy/drama masterwork Art weights these into more that than it does about art appreciation in the stellar production run by Soulpepper Theatre.

Parisian dermatologist Serge (Diego Matamoros) invites both his trusted friends Marc (Oliver Dennis) and Yvan (Huse Madhavji) to his apartment to check out his newly-acquired painting of a purely white painting with discernable white lines running through it for an astronomical price -- I won't even reveal how much -- that brings about three different camps of opinion.

Serge is, obviously, quite delighted with the painting, the taciturn and cynical Marc has quite a few misgivings over its worth and content while the easy-going Yvan, who's dealing with his own personal maelstrom over his upcoming wedding nuptials; seems to share the same opinions over it as Serge, much to Marc's surprise, as he's told him the painting's price tag previously before going over there.

Before long, in what was supposed to be a pleasant evening hanging out together turns into a ferociously heated debate not just over the artwork's value, but on their relationships with one other with hidden truths bubbling (and erupting) to the surface over their commonalities and differences -- and whether or not it's strong enough to survive all this.

The play does take a bit of time reaching its boiling point in the first quarter, but when it comes it's a non-stop riot of clashing egos over interactive relations, emotions and other complexities earning its 90-minute run time in Christopher Hamilton's pretty solid adaptation of French playwright Reza's 1994 Tony Award-winning drawing room satire (just one trival quibble: I know they didn't exist when the play was written but couldn't they have substitute francs for euros now, to make it more contemporary? French francs were phased out after 2002.)

All the actors put on an impressive volley of emotions from Dennis' acerbic portrayal adding fuel to the fire on his ire, immaturity and raw honesty; Madhavji's Yvan is a stressed-out and sensitive bundle when he goes on a pre-wedding crisis rant mid-way through as does Matamoros trying to remain the logical one among this flood of troubles he's unwittingly unleashed.

Philip Akin's honest stage direction keeps all this flowing as it does on the clean white set design by Gillian Gallow is as sharp as it is simple enough under Bonnie Beecher's lighting designs in bringing Art to its senses on the value of art and friendship on both subjects with enough thought to these issues well, as it does in providing stitches.

***

Art continues through September 1. For tickets and information, call 416-866-8666 or visit soulpepper.ca.

Semi-dark Greenland maintains its edge and relevance

SummerWorks Festival 2019 Reviews

Part 2 of a 2-part series

Greenland (Nicolas Billon/Why Not Theatre/Environmental Defence/SummerWorks)

Franco Boni Theatre, Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West

Saturday, August 11; 1:30 p.m.

For a average country which doesn't get much press that often, Greenland sure has been getting a lot of attention of late from a heat wave rapidly melting the ice shelf faster than usual courtesy of a European heat dome to the current President of the United States wanting to buy it as a legacy thing (wouldn't be the first time; President Harry Truman offered US$100 million in gold for it back in 1946). In marking the tenth anniversary of its world premiere at SummerWorks, Nicolas Billon's semi-dark melodrama Greenland got a remount to readdress more than just global warming, but also on the (equally) fragile structure of familial relations that strikes all emotional points.

The play focuses on a trifecta of related characters, starting with glaciologist Jonathan Fahey (Andrew Musselman) whom due to the arctic meltdown of the Greenland's ice shield revealing a previously unknown island within its vicinity that he accidentally discovers and names after his late nephew, Thomas Morrissey. Earning him a scientific celebrity status of sorts, he finds it just a bit befuddling when he really wants to discuss his chosen field and the impact of a serious ecological breakdown.

Meanwhile, his bluntly honest and cynical stage actor wife Judith (Claire Calnan) wishes for a bit more spontaneity and less routine in their marriage that's going through its own personal breakdown which in turn makes her search outside of it to satisfy her needs; and their lively teenaged niece Tanya Morrissey (Miriam Fernandes) works on her social studies presentation on her uncle's discovery and christening it after her twin brother, as more of a catharsis of her coping with his untimely demise and honouring what memories she has of him.

The dramatical reading/fourth-wall format of Greenland is a workable concept on the sparse set in its 75-minute running time in a lightly humorous fashion, as directed by original director Ravi Jain, over the themes of loss, mortality, disconnection and communication playwright Billon weaves a complexity of these ideas -- along with its environmental message -- looking for the questions that cannot be easily answered, is truly a timeless play that's not lost its any of its edge or relevance since its auspicious 2009 debut.

Original cast members Calnan and Musselman are more age-appropriate into their roles, although Calnan puts a bit of a dry performance as the unfaithful spouse trying to make sense of their failing relationship in contrast to Musselman's doddering researcher puts him as a sympathetic type the audience can relate to. And newcomer Fernandes is a brilliant bookend being the comic relief figure needed to cap it off with some sense of hope for all our tomorrows.

EDITION #234 - WEEK OF AUGUST 12-18, 2019

Academic's rough past memoir a miraculous triumph

From the Ashes: My Story of Being Metis, Homeless and Finding My Way

by Jesse Thistle

354 pp.; Simon and Schuster Canada

Softcover, $24.99

Non-Fiction/Autobiography

Book Review

There are some memoirs one can read and find unbelievable when it comes to an individual who has taken a more than fair share of life's hard knocks than others. And then there's Jesse Thistle's From the Ashes: My Story of Being Metis, Homeless and Finding My Way. For a first-time author, the now assistant professor of Metis Studies at Toronto's York University brings a completely warts-and-all autobiography that makes one wonder, after all his hardships of a life of addiction, petty crime and homelessness, that he's even still alive to tell it.

Born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Thistle recalls a tough childhood in poverty when he and his two older brothers were surrendered custody to his charming, rock-loving, drug-addicted Metis father Cyril "Sonny" Thistle, by his Cree mother Blanche Morrissette who'd abandoned them for another husband and a new son in Ottawa, and living in a decrepit apartment in Regina in the late 1970s before being shuttled off to foster care and later, to their paternal grandparents in Toronto.

Struggling with illiteracy, his Indigenous identity and a grandfather with a tough-love approach to raising children, Thistle's rebellious teenage years spiralled into hanging out with the rough crowd of alcohol, drugs and partying. By the late 1990s, he was drifting from coast to coast for a good decade on and off the streets, doing everything from shoplifting to armed robbery just to eat and get the occasional high on every drug listed on the planet (according to him, over one hundred kinds).

Even when several turning points came and went, from almost getting involved in aiding and abetting a serious crime when he had to turn informer to a 10.6-meter (35-feet) drop in a stoned attempt of getting into his brother's apartment after a Halloween party that shattered his right foot, where he almost lost it to gangrene and desperately had to rob a store -- with a submarine sandwich (no joke) -- just to go to prison to save it; Thistle's slow rehabilitation from the streets to getting his education and becoming a Pierre Elliot Trudeau and Vanier Scholar fellow, plus winning a Governor General's Academic Medal; is nothing short of miraculous.

As stated earlier, From the Ashes is an epical and moving memoir, from one trying to run away from his own roots to reclaiming it back to order to redeem himself, is a true survivor's story unlike anything put to print in recent years in Canadian literature, which is also a testament of hope for a brighter future and a real accomplishment for Thistle in his composition of his briskly honest approach, as well as some creative, moving poetry in between chapters.

Some passages offer a now-retrospective laugh while other moments seem so near-tragic about how First Nations society has had to endure the stigmatic stereotypes, abject poverty and our settler-colonist past that we as nation still try to find reconciliation after a century-and-a-half of Confederation. While Thistle also addresses this, his mindset is on building bridges rather than reopening old wounds, including that with his own family members; and this book clearly takes that step as a part of his recovery.

From the Ashes is one of this year's most remarkable Canadian reads of one man fighting and conquering his demons to respectable academia is a triumph onto its own for Thistle and his continuing research into telling the First Nations story that encompasses a part of our mosaic. Highly recommended.

Flower Power tour de force and Meter-maid Diaries

SummerWorks Festival 2019 Reviews

Part 1 of a 2-part series

rochdale (GovCon/Theatre@York/SummerWorks)

Franco Boni Theatre, Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West

Friday, August 9; 6:30 p.m.

The only thing remaining of that infamously experimental free education co-op of the 1960s known as Rochdale College is just a public statue "The Unknown Student" on front of the Galleria/The Kitchen Express store on 341 Bloor Street West that idealized the countercultural communal spirit of the era that so burnt out before its time. Playwright David Yee's tribute to that place, rochdale, perfect sets all those theories and characters that defined -- and defiled -- all those ideas wrapped up as incendiary theatrical tour de force.

Returning to Rochdale from a two-month leave of absence for her father's funeral, Megan Whitman (Leanne Hoffman) is shocked to find her office and position as the school's general manager has been taken over by clutter and her sort-of-ex Dennis (Dean Bessey), not to mention it being chaotic as usual amongst the rogues' gallery of residents coming and going into the place.

Apart from the lack of social order and the building falling apart, the school in mid-1969 is starting to lose its cohesion it once had as an alternative place of higher learning-cum-commune, all being debated by radical hippies and flower children like acid-tripping Skye (Sabrina Marangoni) and Black Power disciple Athena (Claudia Hamilton) fighting against the system or the straight-laced University of Toronto Student Union rep Emmett (Ori Black) wanting to rein in the madness of free love, sex and drugs has steeped into.

More things get complicated as a gay U.S. Army deserter (Dustin Hickey) seeks sanctuary from being shipped off to the Vietnam War, a resident who overdosed in his room to the residents wanting to dismantle whatever sense of order remains does the once-eternal idealistic Megan, in the words of her mentor Allen Ginsberg; openly questions the future of the college: "How long are we going to howl for...and to what end?"

Factory Theatre's Nina Lee Aquino does a brilliant freefall direction that matches the chaotic environs to Yee's dialogue and structure in this fictionalized comedy-drama all energetically played by all cast members as the Flower Power Generation who took off the rose-coloured glasses of their lofty world-changing revolutions to disillusionment and disappointment at decade's end, is what makes this play electrically exciting.

Combined with Mona Farahmand's set designs, Tiana Kralj's accurate period costuming and Ella Wieckowski's lighting, rochdale is 80 minutes worth of blissful calamity that should get a proper remount into indie theatre circles that is much of a celebration, examination and deconstruct of the period and the place where Flower Power practically went stillborn, but with a lingering sense of hope in its place. The festival's best production.

St. Peon of Parkdale (Theatre-A-Go-Go/SummerWorks)

Between Lisgar Park and Dufferin Street

Friday, August 9; 8 p.m.

The outdoor-situated, one-woman production St. Peon of Parkdale works as a physical walking tour/street theatre/art performance making good use of its hour-long running time of bygone eras and bittersweet memories, as it does make statements about gentrification, urban renewal and class structure humorously acted by Jamillah Ross as your friendly-neighbourhood parking officer.

Parking Enforcement Officer (PEO) Rita Mae Nelson (Ross) takes her audience on a tour around the Queen Street West area strip -- or, her "prelude to Parkdale" -- as an training session orientation of "recruits" for the city's parking enforcement unit to point out the responsibilities of being a PEO, as well as making a few pot-shots at the hipster/yuppie culture engulfing a formerly mixed-income neighbour from their parking and biking habits to entitlement attitudes.

She also waxes poetic about how her West Indian immigrant single mother who was once a secretary to a city alderman and Parkdale resident and activist with pride, growing up in the 1970s to CBC-TV children's line-up and Elmer the Safety Elephant program; to even explaining the "origin" behind the Beatles tune "Mean Mr. Mustard." As the tour progresses, Rita Mae slowly reveals some personal truths and about loss that hits closer to home.

Writer-director Caroline Azar brings a sober innovation of how to take up a public space without dominating it in those brief stops along the way, as Ross delivers a even stand-up comic approach in her oratory deliveries, audience participation and ad-lib observations of the progression of time not only for people and places, but also about moving forward as one best can do that is life as a whole, is what gives St. Peon of Parkdale its due as a theatrical gem.

Black Ballerina (Syreeta Hector/SummerWorks)

Theatre Centre Incubator, Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West

Sunday, August 11; 8:15 p.m.

Reconciling one's differences can be a lifelong process and ever-changing in a world and society built on compartmentalization, as New Brunswick-based dancer/choreographer Syreeta Hector attests in her solo project, Black Ballerina. Being of African, European and Mik'maq Nation descent, she puts this all into a 45-minute perspective of what it is to be multiethnic and learning to keep all this in balance.

As a (self-admitted) work-in-progress, Hector puts differing dance disciplines from classical ballet to modern jazz dance to a eclectic score ranging from R&B to Indigenous techno, hip-hop to classical of trying to find her own path through herself and artistry, yet she partly succeeds in presenting her identity politics cohesively.

In its first minutes these ideals she tries to express are slow-moving in bringing her personal life into the public arena, but it picks up at the mid-way point until its finale under a talcum powder shower as a music-box dancer to symbolize whiteness and cleanliness as it does in embracing her genealogy in the end is its only workable moment.

Black Ballerina does have its potential to be something stronger once Hector has it full fleshed out in the near future, so her efforts are not a complete loss as a test run for the SummerWorks crowd.

***

NEXT: Part 2 -- Greenland and more. Additional dates for rochdale are August 17-18, St. Peon of Parkdale August 12 and 16 and Black Ballerina August 14 and 18. SummerWorks 2019 continues through to Sunday (August 18). For tickets and information, visit summerworks.ca.

EDITION #233 - WEEK OF JULY 29-AUGUST 4, 2019

Not-so-buddy spy comedy spin-off offers silly, fun popcorn machismo

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (Universal)

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Stratham, Idris Alba, Vanessa Kirby

Director: David Leitch

Producers: Hiram Garcia, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Stratham and Chris Morgan

Screenplay: Chris Morgan and Drew Pierce; story by Chris Morgan, based on the characters created by Gary Scott Thompson

Film Review

Since The Fast and Furious franchise is practically critic-proof after eight films and a zillion-dollar baby for the vested interests involved in them anyway, it shouldn't come as any surprise that it wants to go the Marvel Cinematic Universe route and make standalone films based upon its popular characters. The first spin-off to come out the gate, Hobbs & Shaw , should please the octane-and-adrenaline junkies who crave these flicks with their usual antics that, for the most part, delivers on cue.

When a dreaded bio-weapon virus -- oddly codenamed Snowflake -- becomes the target of a attempted heist on a British military transport in London by a cyber-genetic supersoldier named Brixton Lore (Alba) working for some dark outfit called Eteon, the surviving MI5 security team leader, Hattie Shaw (Kirby), embeds the virus into her body as a dormant carrier rather than let it fall into his hands.

Framed by Lore as a traitor and knowing the consequences of Snowflake's potential to cause a horrific global contagion, MI5 and CIA send in the wrong people that they know will do the job right: American federal agent Lucas Hobbs (Johnson) and British renegade mercenary Deckard Shaw (Stratham).

Both loggerheads since Furious 7, these lone alpha males certainly don't hide their feelings for each other until they reluctantly find a common ground in getting the mission done as they run all over the world trying to catch up with Hattie, with single dad Hobbs for his tween daughter Sam (Eliana Sua) and Shaw looking to save the fugitive agent, who ironically happens to be his estranged kid sister, from the virus going active and from his old pal-turned-foe Lore from his days in Special Forces.

Working as a not-so-buddy spy action/comedy, Hobbs & Shaw has it well-timed explosions, brawls and shootouts that weave in a few comedic turns and its (dysfunctional) "family" theme so common with the Fast and Furious series, plus a few references from past action films the script pokes at, as duly directed by noted action director David Leitch (John Wick; Atomic Blonde; Deadpool 2).

Yet it's a tailor-made vehicle for Johnson and Stratham that suits both them with their likeable onscreen chemistry -- as well as being the film's co-producers -- who never seem to run out of whatever profanely, testosterone-soaked barbs and taunts they can hurl at each other at every given chance, so that's worth the price of admission. Idris makes good playing another baddie with a twisted worldview (see Star Trek Beyond) and looks like he's having fun doing it this time; Kirby kicks some serious ass and goes on par with the boys pretty well, but nobody is tougher or funnier here than Lori Pelenise Tuisano as Hobbs' Samoan mother who definitely looks like she'd do some serious damage...with her slipper.

For those who need their Fast and Furious fix (and don't worry, number nine is on the way including another spin-off), Hobbs & Shaw provides that summer cinematic popcorn machismo one would expect for all its silly, noisy, physics- and logic-defying fun and thrills, including a surprise cameo; that'll sweeten the deal for at least a sequel to this one.

A Bard musical comedy full of errors

A (musical) Midsummer Night's Dream (Driftwood Theatre)

Withrow Park, 725 Logan Avenue

Friday, July 26; 7:30 p.m.

Theatre Reviews

For its twenty-fifth anniversary season, Driftwood Theatre puts on the old standby A Midsummer Night's Dream for their province-wide Bard's Bus Tour production, adapting it into a musical-comedy by composers Kevin Fox and Tom Illington and director D. Jeremy Smith. However, it's a romp that's hit a bump for this endeavour.

Placing itself in modern-day Athens, Egeus (Ahmed Moneka) files a complaint against his wayward daughter Hermia (Marissa Orjalo) who'd rather marry her true love Lysander (Nathaniel Hanula-James) than her arranged betrothed Demetrius (Nick Dolan), who's from a family of means; to the city-state's rulers Theseus (James Dallas Smith) and Hippolyta (Siobhan Richardson), that are in the midst of their wedding plans.

Ordering Hermia to honour Egeus' contract or face the death penalty, she and Lysander elope into the nearby forest that is ruled by the fairy monarchs Oberon (also Smith) and Titania (also Richardson) which are currently having a disagreement that prompts him to teach her a lesson, he orders servant Puck (also Moneka) to obtain a magic flower who's aphrodisiac extract is so potent, it'll make anyone fall in love with the first thing they see.

Also getting involved with Hermia's confidant Helena (Kelsi James) who is lovelorn over Demetrius who barely knows she's alive, a crazy mix-up of sorts by the mischievous Puck with the extract has Lysander falling for Helena and Titania getting love struck by the sight of Bottome (Steven Burley), a laid-off autoworker leading his merry band of mechanics-turned-troubadours through the forest at the same moment; that has just turned into a were-donkey, courtesy of the fairy courtesan.

Ordinarily this is usually a very adaptable and enjoyable romantic-comedy/fantasy in the Shakespearean trove in any form (and I've mostly seen them all), yet it's difficult to say that A (musical) Midsummer Night's Dream is anything but, with its ultra-campy take on it by the ensemble -- through no fault of their own -- excessively ramping it up from purposely being off-key sometimes to rush-through performances.

In all fairness, using a doo-wop duo arrangement for the musical accompaniment and some sound effects -- if a bit overdone in the latter department -- is a brilliant notion and harmonious here; slightly satirical commentaries on selfies culture and social media via smartphones and Moneka (exceptionally good as Puck), Smith and Burley standing out in their performances among a otherwise satisfactory cast in their multiple roles, are the only things going for this production.

Camp, if done properly, can work its wonders on any viewer. It's just that Driftwood Theatre, who usually makes good on their Shakespearean adaptations, can't make this work for A (musical) Midsummer Night's Dream , which had a lot of potential here in a direction and script that unfortunately tries too hard to please.

***

A (musical) Midsummer Night's Dream continues in various venues across Ontario (additional Toronto dates August 30 at Guild Park, 201 Guildwood Parkway and August 15 at Daniels Spectrum Courtyard, 585 Dundas Street East) through August 18; PWYC ($20-30 donation suggested). For reserved seating, tickets and information, visit driftwoodtheatre.com.

Cautionary Measure

Measure for Measure (Canadian Stage)

High Park Amphitheatre, High Park, 1873 Bloor Street West

Saturday, July 20; 8 p.m.

Shakespeare's Measure for Measure production from Canadian Stage for their second double-bill for this year's Shakespeare in High Park series as a cautionary dark comedy/drama tailor-made to make us wary of populist politicians that engage in dubious behaviours while cloaking themselves with seemingly good deeds.

In present-day Vienna, Duke Vincentio (Allan Louis) embarks on a diplomatic trip to Poland and leaves the daily tasks of governance over to his Angelo (Christopher Morris), a pious and self-righteous autocratic judge who becomes an instant despot in fulfilling his Christian duty by cleansing the city of sin in his own image; while the Duke's aide-de-camp Escalus (Helen Taylor) looks on with quiet reluctance.

Shutting down the brothels, including the highly popular one run by Mistress Overdone (Nora McLellan); and locking up so-called "radicals" like colourful pimp Pompey Bum (Heath V. Salazar) and flamboyantly gay activist nobleman Lucio (Emilio Vieira), Angelo takes things too far when he starts imposing the death penalty on certain sinners, especially one Claudio (Richard Lam) for fathering a child out of wedlock with his very pregnant lady love Juliet (Emma Ferreira) whom he both incarcerates.

His only hope from facing the chopping block and leaving his unborn child fatherless is his sister Isabella (Natasha Mumba), a novice nun who begs clemency for him to the de facto head of state, who only has one condition: surrender her virginity to him, much to her aghast. As the Duke returns in the guise of a friar to observe Angelo's conduct, his bitter ex-fiancee Mariana (Rose Napoli) unexpectedly showing up on his doorstep to counter his hypocrisy and the citizenry starting to revolt, is there any chance of bringing Vienna back from its growing police state?

Despite it being one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays, Measure for Measure is giving a bit more powerful presentation saddled with dark humour under Severn Thompson's direction in this examination over the corruption of power and the ongoing fight to maintain democracy, as much as it is about the struggle of personal choices to be made, is never lost for a moment in the 90-minute play.

All the cast members are at their best in the multiple roles with Morris playing the puritanical tyrant feeding on his given position that doesn't seem too far-fetched with the current line-up of present-day leaders (take your pick); Louis as the good Duke manages to bring some level-headedness and dignity to his public office as does Mumba as the young nun torn between her faith and family; but yet it is McLellan, Salazar and Vieira who provide most of the comic relief of the production.

Probably the must-see Shakespearean show this season, Canadian Stage certainly makes up for the weakness of their alternative run Much Ado About Nothing with Measure for Measure is certainly a timely play for these heady times and how the citizenry can fight back in a mostly entertaining manner as Sister Isabella warns us: "O, it is excellent to have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant."

***

Measure for Measure continues through September 1 alternatively on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., PWYC ($20 donation suggested). For reserved seating, tickets and information, call 416-368-3110 or canadianstage.com.

EDITION #232 - WEEK OF JULY 22-28, 2019

Midsummer theatre fest gets polar(ized)

The Breath Between is a artistic ensemble of monologue, poetry, movement and music that explores themes of queer resilience and dreams in apocalyptic times by the young artists of The AMY Project 2019 theatre program, playing August 8, 10, 12 and 16 as part of SummerWorks 2019

Theatre Preview

This year's midsummer Queen Street West theatre festival SummerWorks, starting next month (August 8-18), features some pressing issues of the day -- and even resurrects a ten-year old classic to address a still age-old problem -- from local to national companies ranging an abundance of topical forums from sexual identities to gender rights and consumerism to a long-gone 1960s countercultural icon.

Based on the critically-acclaimed titular album by Fiver, songwriter Simone Schmidt's song-cycle musical Audible Songs From Rockwood (August 10-11 and 16-18) digs into true-life case files of ten people -- mostly women -- incarcerated at The Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane between 1856 to 1881 as an investigation into colonial power, definitions of sanity and the settler-colonial agenda foundational connected to today's correctional institutions.

In Encumbrance (August 8-9), Johannes Zits explores the conflicted relationship we have with our clothing through second-hand garments and ask us to contemplate our own assertions of consumerism, so-called "fast fashion" and sweatshop labour; dancer/choreographer Mandy E. MacLean goes back two decades to encounter her younger self and the fears that surrounded Y2K, one large marine creature and the soundscape of who she once was in search of herself for the solo production,hiraeth (August 10-11, 13 and 15-17) and the Zuppa Theatre Company takes one on a 90-minute interactive maze with a iPad and headset through the debris of civilization in the age of rising sea levels around the Sanderson Library Branch (327 Bathurst Street) for the performance/online book/game, The Archive of Missing Things (August 13-17).

Speaking of rising sea levels, Nicolas Billon's internationally-acclaimed work Greenland (August 10-11 and 15) returns to SummerWorks after a decade-long absence as a staged reading helmed by original director Ravi Jain about personal and topographical loss about the Arctic island's "discoverer" Eric the Red and the rift growing between his increasingly distant family as well as the receding ice levels off its coastlines changes the landscape.

Left-right: Chris Dodd/Why Not Theatre's Deafy (August 9, 11 and 14) is a hands down and hands up tragicomedy with captions at The Theatre Centre's Incubator space (1115 Queen Street West); while the outdoorsy St. Peon of Parkdale (August 9, 12 and 16) tackles the isms, poorly parked cars and the intersectionality of privilege along Queen Street West, courtesy of its "saint" Parking Enforcement Officer Rita Mae Nelson.

Remaining on the same polar subject, the three-hour immersive multimedia live art piece Antarctica (August 12 and 17) depicting a near-futuristic, post-apocalyptic colonized South Pole and eleven of its inhabitants born there in the last century are called "home" to stake a future land claim, as well as discuss colonialism, climate change and disability justice.

CHILD-ISH (August 8, 12 and 14) is a verbatim play drawn from interviews with children about love and dating, are re-contextualized into adult situations for adult actors with surprising, hilarious and moving results; deaf performing writer/artist Chris Dodd's Deafy (August 9, 11 and 14) blends ASL, spoken word and captions to weave a tragicomedy about a travelling guest lecturer's upcoming presentation that deals with deafness, community and what it really means to belong and a journalist grapples with how to act after uncovering the identity of an alt-right podcast host calling for violence against the media in White Heat (August 11-12 and 14) based on real events, is a play about all the things we justify to ourselves.

Governor General's Award-winning playwright David Yee's new play rochdale (August 8-9, 11 and 17-18) on about the infamous Toronto experimental cooperative housing and alt-education college during late 1960s and how its once-promising student utopia imploded, along with the optimistic idealisms of the period.

And the triple dance bill of Black Ballerina/The Nine Brains of the Human Mind/ those, on the surface (August 12, 15 and 18) engage on personal stories of identity and belonging with ballerina Syreeta Hector sharing her experience of being of woman of African, European and Indigenous descent, her relationship with classical ballet and its inherent systemic racism for Black Ballerina ; Nine Brains reminds us of the existence of beauty through nine different versions of people, as choreographed by Tanveer Alam and the solo number those, on the surface is a new dance piece from Kari Labrentz about austerity, androgyny and architecture.

***

SummerWorks 2019 tickets are now on sale. For more information, visit summerworks.ca.

Multimedia Mandela exhibit to come to Toronto

Anti-apartheid revolutionary hero gets a tributary exhibit at Meridian Arts Centre this fall

Arts Feature

"I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances." – Nelson Mandela, 1998

A figure larger than life until his death in 2013, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was, no doubt, a revered (if equally controversial) figure in the 20th century as the one who fought against the brutally racial policy of apartheid that gripped his native South Africa from its implementation from 1948 to 1991 when he turned to armed struggle after the infamous 1960 Sharpeville Massacre then later sued for peace, shortly upon his 1990 release from prison after 27 years for so-called terrorism charges, to become the country's first post-apartheid president in its first fully multiracial elections and affectionately known by his Xhosa clan name, Madiba.

In marking the eve of the thirtieth anniversary of his historic release that led to the end of apartheid and the pathway towards democracy for South Africa, a major exhibition developed by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg in collaboration with the Apartheid Museum of Johannesburg, South Africa will open in Toronto at the Meridian Arts Centre (5040 Yonge Streeet; formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts come September) Mandela: Struggle for Freedom on October 10 until January 7.

An five-zoned exhibit of imagery, soundscapes, digital media and objects, Mandela: Struggle for Freedom explores Mandela's lifetime fight for justice and human dignity in South Africa and worldwide among the exhibitions many dramatic visual features and original artifacts is a replica of Mandela's eight-foot by seven-foot prison cell at the infamous Robben Island Prison, a former leper colony and animal-quarantine station off Cape Town; that was his home for the first eighteen years of his incarceration.

In addition, one can also take a stand in front of a replica of a giant armoured vehicle that made its rounds through African townships during the uprisings of the 1980s that returned the world spotlight on apartheid, make a virtual protest poster on a digital light table and enter a secret apartment for freedom fighters forced underground during the dark years.

There will be a benefit reception and performance featuring the British-based The Kingdom Choir, best known for their show-stopping performance at the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and their cover of "Stand By Me" that earned a two-billion viral hit online; on November 5 with performers and special guests in attendance, including special extended access to Mandela: Struggle for Freedom. Dinner packages for exhibition supporters are also available for earlier that evening, including a cocktail reception and special guided exhibition tours. All proceeds will go to support the presentation and accessibility of the exhibit's run.

Nelson Mandela is one of only five people to be made honorary Canadian citizens and he travelled to Canada just a few months after his release from prison to thank Canadians for their continued support. "Nelson Mandela forged a strong relationship with Toronto through his multiple visits," said TO Live president and CEO Clyde Wagner, the host of the exhibit at Meridian Arts Centre. "We are honoured to be given the responsibility to present the exhibit, Mandela: Struggle for Freedom immediately following its extended engagement at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights [in Winnipeg]."

***

Tickets now on sale. For more information, call 1-855-872-7669 or ticketmaster.ca. For the November 5 benefit reception/concert, phone 416-368-6161 x7217 or tocentre.com/events/kingdom-choir.

EDITION #231 - WEEK OF JULY 15-21, 2019

Lion King remake light-heartedly maintains its crown

The Lion King (Walt Disney)

Voice Talents: Donald Glover, Beyonce Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Earl Jones

Director: Jon Favreau

Producers: Jon Favreau, Karen Gilchrist and Jeffrey Silver

Screenplay: Jeff Nathanson; story by Brenda Chapman, based on the 1994 animated film and characters by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton

Film Review

Disney's live-action remake of their 1994 animated masterpiece The Lion King wasn't exactly what the world was begging for it to be made, yet it's a meritorious effort done that hasn't lost much of its original impact with a rounded cast and competent, if light-hearted direction by Jon Favreau, who brilliantly brought the 2016 live remake The Jungle Book to life and acclaim.

For those who didn't see -- or, at the very least, weren't around for -- the first cinematic release, lion cub Simba (J.D. McCrary) is born to Mufasa (Jones) and Sarabi (Alfre Woodard), the king and queen of the Pride Lands. As he is groomed to take over as future king, Musafa's jealous brother Scar (Ejiofor) plots from the shadows with an unholy alliance with the hyenas and their leader Shenzi (Florence Kasumba) to usurp both father and son in taking over Pride Rock and the Lands.

Orchestrating a wildebeest stampede down a gully one day with Simba in it, Musafa dies saving his progeny and Scar makes his nephew take the blame for his beloved father's death. Riddled by guilt and sorrow, the princely cub flees into faraway exile and hooks up with meekrat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), who turns their newfound friend onto their carefree lifestyle and philosophy.

As time passes and Simba grows into an adult (Glover), Scar's dictatorial reign leads to barren desolation over the Pride Lands. Reuniting with his cubhood best friend Nala (Knowles-Carter), who's blossomed into a brave and beautiful lioness, he begins to reconnect with his father's spirit after she pleads with him to come back home to bring balance to the Pride Lands and claim his rightful destiny.

Favreau treats Lion King with kid gloves by not adding too many surprises to the formula other than adding thirty minutes longer than the original, but its quasi-Shakespearean emotional pull still stands, with a pretty good script adaptation by Jeff Nathanson from Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton's original screenplay; and his photorealist Virtual Production software technique to makes it all real, despite it (ironically) looking like one of their Disneynature documentaries that almost seems too real for its own good.

McCrary and Glover voicing the younger and adult Simba, respectively, get their dues in carrying out the characters and in song level-headedly as much as Shahadi Wright Joseph and Knowles-Carter do for Nala, whom the former played young Nala in the Broadway theatrical version; John Kani brings a earthy touch to the mandrill shaman Rafiki and Jones reprising Musafa is fatherly warm and commanding as always; Ejiofor's Scar is almost as good -- but not as richly noir -- as Jeremy Irons' original (comes close to it in singing his anthemic "Be Prepared (2019)") and Kasumba's Shenzi as his female hyena counterpart is more darker and even better than original Whoopi Goldberg's.

There's a somewhat toned-down approach with the soundtrack, like stripping the 1990s R&B-pop feel from "I Can't Wait to Be King" for something more real sounding, "Mbube (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)" cover tune is peppier and more fun than in the original, the Glover/Knowles-Carter "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" duet is a nice listen-to; plus two new songs "Spirit," co-written and sung by Beyonce, and the Afrobeat-infused "Never Too Late" end credits tune as co-penned with Tim Rice and sung by Elton John are both pretty good along with Hans Zimmer doing decent touch-ups to his original score.

The only disappointing choices are John Oliver as hornbill Zaza, acting more like a snooty English butler than the amusingly annoying majordomo and Eichner makes for a meek, um, meekrat sidekick for the most part to Rogen's Pumbaa -- who's good here, by the way -- and neither both certainly can't hold a match to originals Rowan Atkinson and Nathan Lane's voicing and comic timing respectively. This remake isn't much like reinventing the wheel that was already great to begin with, but fans of the 1994 film (and I'm one of them) will find it just as endearing to watch over again.

***

The Lion King opens in cinemas worldwide this Friday (July 19).

In the gardens of Zen

Mizuno Katsuhiko: Four Seasons of Gardens in Kyoto

Venue: The Japan Foundation, 2 Bloor Street West, Hudson's Bay Centre, 3rd Floor

Dates/Times: Through July 31; Mondays and Thursdays 11:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m., Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and Saturday (July 20 ONLY) 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.

Admission/Information: FREE. Call 416-966-1600x229 or jftor.org

Gallery Review

As part of this past May's CONTACT Photography Festival and marking 90 years of Canadian-Japanese relations, the Japan Foundation hosts the photography of Mizuno Katsuhiko and his four decades of capturing the flora aspects of the original Japanese capital in the exhibit Four Seasons of Gardens in Kyoto in showing the Zen of its world-renown botany methods in showing ten photos from each season and all of its expressive beauty to beholden.

Born and bred in Kyoto, Mizuno's eye for detail is quite simplistic in every photo on display. Since each photo has their sense of uniqueness and are all gorgeous, I'll discuss about the ones as not best of the bunch (for that wouldn't be fair), but more of ones that truly caught my attention the most as one can easily drink in all their beauty and artistic value as well as their quiet, reflective meditative power they bring.

"Shisen-do Temple" has both winter and fall photos that offer equal contrasts of the snow-covered bushes of the former to the red momiji (Japanese maple) trees and pink flowers atop in the latter that, dare I say, emits their own aura prettiness; while the mist arising from the forest background of "Shugakuin-rikyu Detached Palace" adds a delicate touch to the green lush of springtime.

The night photos of "Kodai-ji Temple (Sp-9)" gets illuminate by lighting up the cherry blossoms and raked rock gardens known as karesansui (dry landscape) as built by the widow of Toyotomi Hideyoshi after his death, and "Entoku-in Temple" gets a full moonrise shot against the autumn colours and waterless pond in the early evening sky.

"Murin-an Temple (Su-2)" of its Meiji-era (1868-1912) pond garden by famed architect Ogawa Jihei with a three-way waterfall and two streamlets cutting into each other is an impressive achievement with its birds-eye shot here, the slick wetness of the tightly pebble-cobbled banks of "Sento-gosho Imperial Palace" during a rainstorm has its own contemplative appreciation and the tableau of Edo period (1603-1868) "Hosen-in Temple" of both spring and fall seen from the viewing garden's reception hall is like looking at a vivid living portrait of the forest and Ohara Mountain range in the background. No wonder the hall, called Bankanen, meaning "difficult to leave;" earned its most fitting name.

After seeing the exhibit, it's a good idea to check out the 56-minute companion video Dream Window: Reflections of a Japanese Garden, a documentary from 1992, to further explain the concepts of its purpose and place in Japanese society despite its modernism, especially its interconnection with the tea ceremony in "the pursuit of something simple" says it all about its philosophy.

EDITION #231 - WEEK OF JULY 8-14, 2019

Getting jazzy from Arabia to Vermont around Yorkville

Toronto Jazz Festival 2019 Reviews

Part 2 of a 2-part series

Moneka Arabic Jazz

Mainstage on Cumberland Street, 100 Cumberland Street

Wednesday, June 26; 8:15 p.m.

One of the finalist winners of this year's Stingray Rising Stars Program Awards for the festival, Moneka Arabic Jazz, as led by Iraqi-born vocalist/percussionist Ahmed Moeka; played out his hybridized brand of Arabic maqam music, jazz, blues and pop along with some familiar locals which he formed over eight months ago with drummer Max Sennitt, Demetri Petsalakis on guitar and oud , clarinettist/vocalist Majd Sukar, bassist/vocalist Waleed Abdulhamid, Ernie Tollar on saxophone and Arabic flute and violinist/vocalist Jessica Hana Deutsch for a highly-energized performance.

Throwing around some tunes like funky "Alilah," the esoteric science-fictional vibe heard on "Indibashir," a bit of reggae on "Tajini," and lengthy rocker "Fatat Latifa," Moneka pulls off his own sense of showmanship -- and a couple of moves onstage -- especially around the Sufi trance Tunisian rock tune "Sinimansuar" and danceable "Dingi Dingi Do" that had the somewhat packed audience on its feet for the duration.

The Toronto world music jazz scene has a newcomer with fire and dedication from its artisan line-up of some of the best local musicians backing up a charismatic headman, who also knows how to whip up a frenzy playing a bouncy Congolese soukous number flavoured with soul for "So Yah So Habibi," is one act to watch out for.

Norman Marshall Villeneuve's Art Blakey Centennial Celebration

Mainstage on Cumberland Street, 100 Cumberland Street

Friday, June 28; 12 p.m.

In saluting one of jazz's innovative artists on skins (plus following his example on nurturing the next generation) for his birth centenary, Canadian legend Norman Marshall Villeneuve did a noonday set with his current Jazz Message ensemble for a totally unfiltered rendering of classical jazz and a couple of new tunes for the more than modest yet receptive crowd that attended the Art Blakey Centennial Celebration.

The harmonies remained tight and taut in check with Mark Eisenman on piano, bassist Dave Young, Ken Fornetran on alto saxophone and trumpeter Alexander Brown, they paid their homage well to the hard bop/bebop icon with his best-known standbys "Summertime," "Moanin'," "Night in Tunisia" and "Between Races," Villeneuve also slipped in something written by Canadian jazz piano star -- and Oscar Peterson protege -- Robi Botos "A Real Jazz Message" that had a smooth groove to it.

Even though he joked in his intro before playing "Someone to Watch Over Me" so that "the guys wanted me to do a slow ballad, but that might put me to sleep," Villenueve was still a force to be reckoned with at age 81 in playing out everything from samba grooves to old-school cool for a straightforward seventy-five minutes with such life and veracity.

Drew Jurecka Trio

Sassafraz Restaurant, 100 Cumberland Street

Saturday, June 29; 10 p.m.

It's been a number of years since I'd reviewed an festival act at a dining venue, but was intrigued in checking out Drew Jurecka Trio with the violinist-vocalist with pianist Mark Kieswetter and double bassist Clark Johnston which had a touch of Stephane Grappelli in his approach to the material he laid out over two-hour, three-set performance inside Yorkville's noted Sassafraz.

Tucked into a little corner in the somewhat small restaurant, they broke out with "There Will Never Be Another You" in high fashion, but it wasn't until "Better Stands" did they garner any attention from the late-dinner crowd that was mostly responsive, among other numbers they played including "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," "Oh, Lady Be Good!," highlight "Cheek to Cheek," original number "Hothouse" and (his only time singing) vocalizing to "My Blue Heaven."

One of the more entertaining moments was their take on "Moonlight in Vermont" holding a romantic notion with Kieswetter adding a few notes of "Stars Fell on Alabama" as a nice touch to it in their sound and performances, as they neatly wrapped it up with Jobim's "Corcovado," "Night and Day" and "Sweet Georgia Brown."

The trio honours the Great American Songbook in their style and approach, as well as interacting and staying attuned with their audience members and repertoire despite the crowded venue space for their performance. Maybe next time, someplace a little bit bigger?

Much Ado in the '90s halfway works

Much Ado About Nothing (Canadian Stage)

High Park Amphitheatre, High Park, 1873 Bloor Street West

Friday, July 5; 8 p.m.

Theatre Review

Perhaps Shakespeare didn't invent the romantic comedy genre, but he certainly had (and still has) established himself as the king of it, as Canadian Stage's 38th season of Shakespeare in High Park in their mounting of one of his more popular titles, Much Ado About Nothing , will attest in still being relevant in giving it a modern-day twist to address the Me Too Movement and callout culture that pervades us of late, if somewhat of a noble semi-failure.

Setting it in and around the large lakeside home of wealthy government official Leonato (Allan Louis) in the fictionalized Muskokan town of Messina, Ontario in the late 1990s, he greets his Canadian Armed Forces friends Don Peter (Christopher Morris) and his second-in-command Benedick (Jamie Robinson) from a tour of duty. Infatuated with Leonato's daughter Hero (Emma Ferreira), he asks for her hand in marriage, while his headstrong niece Beatrice (Rose Napoli) and Benedick constantly wage heated battle of wits in professing to maintain their singleton statuses.

As in any Shakespearean screwball comedy, certain games are afoot to make Beatrice and Benedick fall for each other to expose their true hidden passions for each other by said parties but Hero's brother Don John (Natasha Mumba) dastardly schemes to sabotage his sister's nuptials in sake of power through rumour and innuendo, which leads to the usual misunderstandings, misogyny, privilege and chaos that dog both couples on what was supposedly a nice retreat in Cottage Country.

Director Liza Balkan's set piece of placing Much Ado in that seemingly simple era of pre-internet/pre-social media -- and any notion of "going viral" -- is an intriguing concept in itself that would have worked, yet seems kind of offish in the execution for this particular play (maybe for As You Like It, just not this one) in going for the not-so long ago nostalgic path of twenty years ago that, ironically, seems a bit too soon.

What keeps this play from going flat is the timeless comedy and the cast's timing is in tune to it, along with Joanna Yu's fanciful set design and Rebecca Picherak's lighting designs; from the sexual tension chemistry between Robinson and Napoli (although her stand-up comic segments tend to run thin after the first couple of times) slowly melt. Louis and Helen Taylor as his wife Ursula provide the head couple's jolly wisdom to centralize the play's ensemble; Mumba does wicked well as the villain but never overlook the smaller roles played by Heath V. Salazar as faithful love-struck maid Margaret or Nora McLellan as the diligent guard Dogberry for comic relief. Oh yes, they also do the Macarena in it, too.

Much Ado About Nothing has its moments in the two-hour running time, but it's not really one of Canadian Stage's finest Shakespeare in High Park presentations in the last few years -- and they have done better. The alternative drama for this season, Measure for Measure, will hopefully make up for this seemingly weakest of their double bill.

***

Much Ado About Nothing continues through September 1 alternatively on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays at 8 p.m., PWYC ($20 donation suggested). For reserved tickets and information, call 416-368-3110 or canadianstage.com.

EDITION #230 - WEEK OF JUNE 24-30, 2019

Atwood's neo-Orwellian classic gets stunning graphic treatment

The Handmaid's Tale: The Graphic Novel

by Margaret Atwood; Art and adaptation by Renee Nault

240 pp.; McClelland & Stewart/Penguin Random House Canada

Hardcover, $29.95

Comics & Graphic Novels/Speculative Fiction

Book Review

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale became an instant modern classic in 1985 written at the height of the neoconservative Reagan-Bush Revolution of the era and the rise of evangelical Christianity that has since been analysed outside and within academia, made into a limpid 1990 film version and opera in 2000, in more recent times, as a highly successful online streaming series that revitalized interest in the book again. Before she releases its highly-anticipated sequel The Testaments later this year, Atwood co-adapts a credible graphic novel adaptation of said book with noted illustrator Renee Nault that's nothing short of stunning.

Set in the near-futuristic dystopian Republic of Gilead -- of what was once the American region of New England -- that rose from the post-apocalyptic ashes of the United States, where civil and gender rights have been stripped away under a theonomic military dictatorship and all young, fertile women are now reduced to being baby-making chattels called Handmaids for the privileged few in an age of declining birthrates and all sorts of basic shortages.

As seen through the eyes of one Handmaid named Offred, she is subservient to the Gilead military leader known as The Commander and his infertile wife to once a month lie on her back and pray as he forcibly tries to impregnate her. But she remembers a time when she once was a career woman with a family and life before the dark times came and how the system broke down by its current leaders that also battle a persistent rebellion in the barren Colonies where dissidents and sterile "Unwomen" are banished to.

Under pressure to get produce a child for Serena Joy, the Commander's Wife, she unexpectedly finds herself developing a symbiotic if risky relationship by her employers who feel they can curry her favour, including their chauffeur Nick; Offred dreams of being reunited with her long-lost daughter and the chance to escape that only brings more risks by her, her fellow Handmaids and others, who also dare to do so at the cost of their lives.

Victoria-based artist and co-adaptor Nault's expressive and gorgeously watercolour-and-ink artwork chillingly mirrors such present-day truths and predictions like global warming, religious fundamentalism, the visible face of the ultra-right and the arguments for/against feminism taken to the extremes under the guise of fascism that kind of makes one wonder if the world we have now is heading in that same direction.

The Handmaid's Tale: The Graphic Novel brilliantly does Atwood's magnum opus justice of the story's tragic heroine trapped in a neo-Orwellian world that is still timely haunting, yet there is a shimmer of hope that good and commonsense will prevail for the voices and duties of the progressive in all of its darkness spread within its pages.

Feel-gooder if clunky Beatlesque fantasy-com

Yesterday (Universal)

Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon Di Martino, Ellise Chappell

Director: Danny Boyle

Producers: Bernard Bellew, Tim Bevan, Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis

Screenplay: Richard Curtis; story by Richard Curtis and Jack Barth

Film Review

One cannot fathom the depth of how influential the Beatles have been on popular music and pop culture in general, but it begs the obvious question: what if they'd never existed? Academy Award-winning filmmaker Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis come up on such a premise with the romantic-comedy/fantasy Yesterday, that works when it works but tends to be clunky in other parts.

Talented British singer and songwriter Jack Malik (Patel) struggles to make a go at his life passion playing small gigs at music festivals, pubs and birthday parties around Suffolk with best friend schoolteacher Ellie Appleton (James) being his manager and major fan -- plus secretly has had the hots for him -- since their middle school days. Tired of trudging without much success, he's considering of giving up his dream and going back to teaching.

Coming back from another dismal gig, he gets hit by a bus during a twelve-second worldwide blackout and after recovering from the accident he plays a touching version of the Beatles' chestnut "Yesterday" for Ellie with friends Nick (Harry Michell) and Carol (Sophia Di Martino) who believe he wrote it himself. Initially thinking they're just messing about with him, he discovers much to his astonishment and shock that the band had never existed in this parallel world -- among other things -- and he's managed to maintain the Beatles' catalogue in his head.

After doing a "covers" EP of sorts with small-time engineer Gavin (Alexander Arnold), it garners huge enough attention to get him an opening gig with British folk-pop star Ed Sheeran (Himself) in Moscow and becomes an online smash. When austere American music manager Debra Hammer (McKinnon) shows up and offers Jack the big time that he's wanted for so long, his conscience is torn by taking credit for music that isn't originally his and following his true happiness and love with Ellie.

Doyle puts in the effort in making Yesterday one of those feel-good works like he did with Slumdog Millionaire over a decade ago (is this the real reason why he walked away from directing the next James Bond film?) and the editing by Jon Harris helps the flow along, with a few Beatles references thrown in and a couple of real surprises for good measure -- plus the music's sublime, of course.

While the humour remains stellar, the real problem here is the romantic chemistry between Jack and Ellie that seems so stiff and clumsy at times that they're acting like teens again and not adult thirty-somethings. And that's kind of baffling coming from screenwriter Richard Curtis, who's had hits with the same type of formula used in Four Weddings and A Funeral, About Time and Love, Actually.

Patel, makes his film debut (although familiar to fans of the long-running Brit TV soap opera EastEnders) here does a pretty good job playing the conflicted rocker who wants to do what's best in honouring the musical heroes that don't exist in this world -- and nobody believing that they ever did -- and those he loves, along with his real-life singing and performing the tunes; James' pining Ellie has a sweet, unrequited flair and smarts; Joel Fry provides additional comic relief as his dim slacker roadie buddy Rocky and Sheeran doesn't mind sending himself up, but the real show-stealer here is McKinnon's turn as the greedy, self-absorbed industry power player Debra as a character you'll love to hate in skewering the music biz (the PR marketing Los Angeles meeting scene is a blast).

Yesterday's romance factor kind of stumbles around in trying to find its own feet, but still it'll entertain Beatles and classic rock fans out there looking for a laugh with its reasonably fun and fully energetic fantasy romp Doyle delivers on the whole.

Raptors hangover delirium adds flavour to jazz fest's opening weekend

Toronto Jazz Festival 2019 Reviews

Part 1 of a 2-part series

Magnolia Brass Band

Village of Yorkville Park, 115 Cumberland Avenue

Friday, June 21; 7:15 p.m.

Whether it had to do something about the theme of New Orleans Mardi Gras as planned by the organizers or the current leftover euphoria over the historic Toronto Raptors' win of the NBA Championship, this town was in a party mood and on the first day of the Toronto Jazz Festival certainly provided such opportunity to do so in its Yorkville hub with a few Dixieland (or themed) bands.

One such group was the veteran locally-based Magnolia Brass Band, as led by trumpeter/whistler/singer Patrick Tevlin, which a mix of old and young musicians literally parading around -- and I mean, around the area -- the Yorkville Park area between Bellair Street and Old York Lane pathway, even atop the ancient Yorkville Rock, marking themselves as a real "traveling band."

In their romp-around the tony high-street shopping enclave, classic ("Hold That Tiger Rag," "You Are My Sunshine," "I'll Fly Away," "Little Brown Jug," "St. James Infirmary Blues", "Just a Closer Walk with Thee") and non-classic (Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right", "Somewhere Over the Rainbow") tunes alike -- including original song "Can Thomas Boogie-Woogie?" -- got played with a certain spring in their steps and expressive joy that was infectious, especially in their closing tune of the immortal spiritual, "When the Saints Go Marching In."

Hot 8 Brass Band

Mainstage on Cumberland Street, 100 Cumberland Street

Friday, June 21; 8:30 p.m.

New Orleans group Hot 8 Brass Band brought in a fully-packed crowd at the Mainstage on Cumberland Street as the veteran jazz-funk band, who's had their more than unfair share of troubles with their band member line-up than most in their quarter-century history; show that they are true survivors in many respects as their performances showed it in the 90-minute concert they pulled to a rousing success.

Led by sousaphone player/founder Bennie "Big Peter" Pete, the band tore through covers of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," The Three Degrees' "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)" , The Temptations' "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," George Clinton's "Atomic Dog" to James Brown's "Get On Up," as well as a few original tunes "Let Me Do My Thing," the calypso-flavoured "Gimme That Funky Stuff," "Whatcha Do (Comes Back to You)" and "Jamming to the Music" demonstrated a high-energy level playing being their main ingredient connecting between themselves and audience that could explain their longevity in the business.

Left-right: Erja Lyytinen, Donnie Walsh (in light blue shirt), Chuck Jackson and Gary Kendall.

Downchild Blues Band 50th Anniversary Kick-off Party

TD Mainstage on Bloor Street West Stage, Bloor Street West between Avenue Road and St. Thomas Street

Saturday, June 22; 8:30 p.m.

To say that the most anticipated concert of the fest was standing room only would be an understatement when Canadian blues vets Downchild Blues Band shut down the usually busy Bloor Street West roadway for their half-century anniversary, as introduced by starring guest, blues aficionado, part-time musician and old friend Dan Aykroyd and a few other friends onboard for a pretty rocking time that didn't disappoint on any level.

Founder Donnie "Mr. Downchild" Walsh on guitar and harmonica with current line-up members lead singer and harps man Chuck Jackson, tenor sax man Pat Carey, keyboardist Michael Fonfara, bassist Gary Kendall and drummer Mike Fitzpatrick wasted no time in getting it on with hand-clapper "Do Drop In," "Get Myself a Hat" and oldie hit "Understanding and Affection" before bringing on Canadian blue-rock icon David Wilcox on a couple of tunes "Gonna Watch You" and putting in some Peter Frampton licks into "Fancy Blue Shoes."

Country-blues love song "Made My Day" and another band fave "Come On In" rolled in nicely after Downchild/The Fabulous Thunderbirds alumnus Gene Taylor tickled the keys with flair for "Take You to the Top." Rising Finnish blues star Erja Lyytinen for a one-song duet with Jackson for "Mississippi Woman, Mississauga Man" that was sweet, but all too short a timeframe to showcase her talents -- more on that later -- to have band alumnus Kenny Neal come onboard for "When Things Go Wrong," to which Jackson quipped on their commonality with the recent Toronto Raptors NBA win: "Just like the blues championship, we both know how to dribble."

Finally Aykroyd, sporting shades, a Blues Brothers T-shirt and fedora and Blues Brothers/Late Night with Letterman keyboardist Paul Schaffer on Hammond B organ tore it up with "Born In Chicago" and the Sam & Dave monster classic "Soul Man" that got the most applause in the two-hour run time, before closing out with Downchild hits "(I Got Everything I Need) Almost" and an all-star ensemble for "Flip, Flop and Fly."

While it was great to hear the band do all their hits and new tracks like the opening number "Can You Hear the Music," it seemed kind of surprising to have all the other guest members do two or three jams, but Lyytinen only gets one song and doesn't return back to the stage until the finale? I thought it was improper to introduce young talent to a larger audience and then tell them to come back for the last number. Nonetheless, one couldn't think of a better headline act than home-grown blues icons like the Downchild Blues Band to get the fest's first weekend off to a roaring start.

Shad presents Hip-Hop Meets Jazz: Melanie Charles and Make jazz Trill Again/Oddisee & Good Compny/Shad

TD Mainstage on Bloor Street West Stage, Bloor Street West between Avenue Road and St. Thomas Street

Sunday, June 23; 8:15 p.m.

Remember when hip-hop jazz (or jazz-rap) exploded onto the scene over two decades ago with Us3, Dream Warriors, De La Soul and Digable Planets leading the charge on the subgenre as its biggest stars? As the likes of Kamasi Washington, Canada's BADBADBADNOTGOOD, Kendrick Lamar and England's Coops bringing back the sound for the next generation, the showcase Hip-Hop Meets Jazz offered a spotlight on new talents as curated by Juno-winning MC Shad (born Shadrach Kabango) with some impressive choices offered for the crowd.

Brooklyn-based Melanie Charles' music palette got off on the wrong note (literally) with a brief technical opening glitch before recommencing with "C'est Bon," then improving on each song for her shorten set with her Make jazz Trill again backup members bassist Jean-Antoine Michel and drummer David Frasier with diligent numbers "Thinking About You" and covers of "Skylark" and Nancy Wilson's "How Glad I Am."

Admittedly, the performance felt a bit sophomoric, yet Charles did put on an adventurous take on her material a la Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu which sounded promising with her mixed influential bag of Haitian folk, jazz, African, Negro spirituals, psychedelic, avant-garde and R&B in English and French Creole.

Oddisee & Good Compny, as lead by its charismatic frontman Amir Mohamed "Oddisee" el Khalifa; was a lively bunch from Washington, D.C. that's been in the game for awhile, however they had the audience eating out of their hands courtesy of their 1990s old-school hip-hop and funk as they belted out "Solve All My Problems," "Hold It Back," the emotional immigrant protest number "Let Me Live," as taken by Oddisee whose of Sudanese descent; a joyful countenance with "I Wanna Be Happy," the Guru-styled "This So Real" and "Never Not Gettin' Enough" among others in the showcase's longest running act.

As Shad himself ended things it his hit "Get It, Got It, Good," "Caught In a Blink," "MVP," a metaphorical commentary about evil on new song "Magic" and celebrating Toronto's diversity for "Fan Jam" and "Truth is Bullet-proof," credit should be given to Guelph DJ Elaquent for filling in-between acts with his expansive mixtape of lo-fi chillhop.

***

NEXT:Part 2 -- Norman Marshall Villeneuve's Art Blakey Centennial Celebration, Drew Jurecka Trio and more. The 2019 Toronto Jazz Festival continues through Sunday (June 30). For tickets and information, visit torontojazz.com.

EDITION #229 - WEEK OF JUNE 17-23, 2019

A tenderly last (Toy Story) round-up

Toy Story 4 (Pixar/Walt Disney)

Voice Talents: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Tony Hale

Director: Josh Cooley

Producers: Mark Nielsen and Jonas Rivera

Screenplay: Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom; story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Josh Cooley, Valerie LaPointe, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, Martin Hynes and Stephany Folsom

Film Review

Starting with a personal confession: up until very recently, I'd never seen any films from the Toy Story franchise simply because I didn't think the concept of toys coming to life and dealing with regular feelings was a credible idea that anyone could make it work. After catching up with all the previous films to prep me for Toy Story 4, I humbly stand corrected that Pixar had made the impossible possible -- and lovable.

That said, it also came as a real surprise to everybody who had thought the series were done and dusted after the superlatively superb third film nine years ago -- including Pixar themselves -- that they decided to come out with a fourth instalment. Now it seems for certain that is their last hurrah with those secretly sentient playthings this time, all wrapped up in a neat bow that fans will really break their tissues out for (if they hadn't for number three).

Picking up where they last left off with their new preschooler owner Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) several months later, Woody (Hanks) finds his role as the collective's leader diminishing from each playtime, as she spends less and less time with him. Entering kindergarten with the usual anxieties of being away from her toys, Bonnie creates a makeshift substitute with a spork out of some arts and crafts in class and names it Forky (Hale).

Believing that he's only destined to be a disposable eating utensil rather than some misshapen transitional toy, the others try to convince the newcomer that his existence has meaning to their owner. While going on a brief family road trip before starting the new school year near the mountainous town of Grand Basin, Forky tries to run away with Woody going after him.

Along the way, he finds his long-lost flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts, who was conspicuously absent in the last film) in the local antique shop that's run by a 1950s-era talking doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) whose voice box has been damaged and will stop at nothing, with her army of ventriloquist dummies under her command, to get Woody's still-workable one in order to become someone's toy again.

Without wanting to reveal too many plot spoilers, the filmmakers make this a solid addition to the animated series in its theme about finding one's purpose in life and knowing when to follow your heart, with director Josh Cooley (a Pixar vet making his directorial debut) at the helm and a whole slew of writers behind Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom's script to be as heart-warmingly funny and achingly sad.

Hanks gives Woody some more humanistic characteristics than he's done in previous films as he lets the old-time cowboy rediscover his sense of purpose after a childhood with former owner Andy and a babysitter for Forky; Potts is wonderfully back as his old porcelain girlfriend Bo who's inherited a worldly-wise wisdom and street survival smarts; Hale manages to portray the identity crisis-plagued Forky with sweet innocence, while Hendricks plays the film's toy villain but this time with a certain unconventional and sympathetic manner, compared to past nasty toys Stinky Pete in part 2 and part 3's Lotso.

While Allen's Buzz Lightyear and Cusack's Jessie have slightly less screen time as well as Wallace Shawn's dino Rex, Blake Clark's Slinky Dog, Estelle Harris' Mrs. Potato Head and John Ratzenberger's Hamm (plus very minimal archival tracks for Mr. Potato Head from the late Don Rickles; to whom the film is partially dedicated to in memory along with late Pixar animator Adam Burke), their presence doesn't feel too much like filler and do contribute to the story at hand with just as much laughs -- as well as a sly guest character appearance from Tin Toy, Pixar's first short, a treat for its major fans to watch out for.

New characters make the cut as decent comic reliefs with Ally Maki voicing Bo's tiny cute sidekick Giggle McDimples and conjoined carnival midway prizes Ducky and Bunny, voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele respectively; but we Canadians will be totally tickled pink over Keanu Reeves' hilarious voicing the failed Canuck Evel Knievel-like action figure Duke Kaboom with a few Canadian-isms done for laughs.

As a tenderly and fitting send-off for the wildly-successful franchise that launched their animation house into a household name and industry player, Pixar bids with a fond adieu to their beloved characters with Randy Newman's substantial score with a neat ending credits tune "The Ballad of the Lonesome Cowboy," as sung by country star Chris Stapleton. While Toy Story 4 may go out on a sentimental note (once again), it will still leave you with a smile on your face.

***

Toy Story 4 opens in cinemas worldwide this Friday (June 21).

Southern-fried familial dramedy still holds dark relevance

August: Osage County (Soulpepper Theatre)

Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane

Thursday, June 13; 7:30 p.m.

Theatre Review

The trope of the dysfunctional family unit has been a part of the analytical social construct in most forms of media over the last thirty or so odd years mostly popularized either through satire by The Simpsons or in documentaries like Crumb. Soulpepper Theatre commits to stage the latest entry on that subject with all their energy into August: Osage County about one particular family that should be committed for all its emotional turbulence felt in the lengthy dark comedy-drama.

Set in pre-Great Recession America, the Weston family all gather together in rural Pawhuska, Oklahoma to bring some sense of unity after patriarch Beverly (Diego Matamoros) goes missing for a couple of days, only to prepare for his funeral after his body is found in a nearby lake as a victim of suicide.

As elder daughter Barbara Fordham (Maev Beaty) with estranged husband Bill (Kevin Hanchard) and rebellious teen daughter Jean (Leah Doz) in tow from Colorado, she has to contend with her cancer-stricken mother Violet (Nancy Palk) along with sisters Ivy (Michelle Monteith) and Karen (Raquel Duffy) with her Floridian fiance Steve Heidebrecht (Ari Cohen), plus maternal aunt Mattie Fae Aiken (Laurie Paton), uncle Charlie (Oliver Dennis) and their ne'er-do-well son "Little" Charles (Gregory Prest).

In the funereal wake, certain tempers flare in the heat of August mainly from Violet who'll give the length of her acidic tongue and attitude to anyone who gets in her warpath, as well as quite a few skeletons coming out of almost everyone's closets while Johanna Monevata (Samantha Brown), the Cheyenne housekeeper Beverly hired to help his wife just days prior to his death, remains the near-quiet observer flitting about the Southern-fried familial chaos swirling about.

Director Jackie Maxwell brings Tracy Letts' powerful Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play to full boil by the cast that never lags in its three hour-and-fifteen minute running time shattering nuclear family myths all in one shot on Camellia Koo's impressive split-level stage design and effective lighting direction by Davida Tkach right up to its final scene.

While the cast members are all brilliant, Palk as the regularly chain-smoking, pill-popping matriarch whose tough alpha female facade slowly but surely crumbles stands out in full force; Beaty takes some stamina of being the eldest child carrying a lot of personal burdens for herself and others; Matamoros' brief part as a world-weary poetry professor finding solace in drink and T.S. Eliot to Brown's quasi-invisible presence as a reminder of Indigenous survival and resilience in the Americas that cannot be overlooked here.

Soulpepper scores another seasonal highlight with August: Osage County reflecting the family ties that bind (and gag), the state of America for all its characteristic blemishes and illusionary American Dream that still holds relevance in the (hopefully) first term tail-end of the Trumpian era of the anger issues this modern-day classic addresses, even twelve years since its auspicious 2007 Chicago debut, with laughter and aftershocks.

***

August: Osage County continues through June 30. For tickets and information, call 416-866-8666 or soulpepper.ca.

EDITION #228 - WEEK OF JUNE 10-16, 2019

Satisfyingly smart Pets 2

The Secret Life of Pets 2 (Universal)

Voice Talents: Patton Oswalt, Kevin Hart, Harrison Ford, Eric Stonestreet

Directors: Chris Renauld and Jonathan del Val

Producers: Christopher Meledandri and Janet Healy

Screenplay: Brian Lynch, based on his characters

The Secret Life of Pets 2 , the follow-up to the runaway 2016 animated comedy hit; enters into that rarefied fray of being one of those sequels that outdoes its predecessor in script, tone and character over its original storyline and personal growths of the domesticated animals who act on their own accord when people aren't around.

Things have certainly changed for New York City hounds Max (Oswalt) and his fellow adoptee Duke (Stonestreet) since the last film, as their human Katie (Ellie Kemper) has met and married a decent guy named Chuck (Pete Holmes) and before long, their baby son Liam (Henry Lynch) enters the picture. Initially, Max is very uncertain of having a child in his life but has immensely bonded with him, along with Duke.

But this sudden sense of responsibility over Liam has made the Jack Russell terrier overwhelmingly protective of his young charge to the point that he's developed a nervous tic and scratching habit. Upon a veterinarian's suggestion, the family goes on a vacation to Chuck's Uncle Shep who runs a farm upstate with his grizzled resident farm dog, Rooster (Ford).

Meanwhile, Max's pampered Pomeranian girlfriend Gidget (Jenny Slate) accidentally loses his prized squeak toy to a apartment filled with alpha cats who won't give it up without a fight and seeks out advice from their feline friend Chloe (Lake Bell) on how to be a cat to retrieve it; and the psycho rabbit-turned-"superhero" Snowball (Hart) gets hired by Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), a bold if a bit bigmouthed little Shih Tzu, to help rescue a white tiger cub named Hu from the clutches of a cruel circus owner (Nick Kroll) and his roving band of Russian wolves.

Directors Chris Renauld and Jonathan del Val and screenwriter Brian Lynch pulls out a smart and entertaining film by introducing some character development and engaging two subplots with the main one that comes out, most surprisingly of all, all smooth and interconnected about overcoming ones' fears as Pets 2 does, that would have been a messy hindrance in the hands of lesser-qualified filmmakers.

Oswalt -- replacing the original voice Louis C.K. -- settles quite finely as the central canine hero Max who's no longer selfish sharing space with others, including his humans and Hart's Snowball, the once prejudicially anti-human rabbit has now happily settled to a loving home with his human Molly (Kiely Renaud) and dons on a superhero persona (since she dresses him up as one anyway) while still campaigning against animal injustice without losing any of his comedic persona and looking to prove himself from his former ways.

The newcomers to the Pets franchise are very welcomed, with Ford playing the ruggedly unflappable if fatherly-type mentor Rooster giving Max a few life lessons and Haddish as the overconfident Daisy makes a good sidekick to Snowball, as well as lovable returnees Slate, Bell, Bobby Moynihan, Hannibal Buress and Nick Kroll makes a neatly dastardly comic villain. My only real misgiving about the film is that they've allowed the usage of a certain profanity coming out of the mouth of crusty basset hound Pops, voiced by Dana Carvey; as a bit inappropriate for a family film that younger viewers really shouldn't be exposed to.

Still, The Secret Life of Pets 2 remains a total winner for its fans about adapting to life's changes and learning to let go is a maturing factor of the series and, most of all, its closing end title sequence involving a short but hilariously cute gansta rap video parody with Snowball, "Panda" is bound to be this summer's cinematic earworm tune since The LEGO Movie 's "Everything is Awesome."

Migration tale a soul-stirring human endeavour account

Alpha: Abidjan to Paris

by Bessora and Barroux; translated from French by Sarah Ardizzone

128 pp.; Bellevue Literary Press

Hardcover, $24.99

Comics & Graphic Novels/Non-Fiction

Book Review

Migration is about as old as time and humanity itself. Oftentimes, we here in North America tend to develop total amnesia that most of us too are immigrants (and descendants of) to this part of the world -- mainly through enforced colonialism -- yet it remains the hot-button issue of recent years, as French author Bessora and illustrator Barroux brings a harrowing and true-life account of one migrant, Alpha Coulibaly, looking to find a better life elsewhere in the international award-winning graphic novel Alpha: Abidjan to Paris.

As a poor cabinetmaker in the West African nation of Cote d'Ivoire, Coulibaly makes the hard decision to immigrate to France after his wife Patience and young son Badian went ahead six months prior to settle down there with his sister-in-law who runs a hair salon in Paris, but has yet to hear word from any of them. Going through the regular legal government channels of either Cote d'Ivoire or France is an expensive, bureaucratic nightmare of epic proportions that could take months and/or years on end to get a proper visa -- if at all.

Through his taxi driver friend Valtis who has certain connections, he sells his business and house to come up with the money to make the arduous trip towards Northern Africa in various methods of transportation, mostly on foot and in rickety, un-roadworthy old cars and vans. He encounters many travellers, young and old, with a variety of reasons of leaving their homes, from Abebi, a Nigerian woman doing everything and anything to make it to the promising shores of Europe to the most colourful one being a Cameroonian named Antoine who has big dreams of becoming a soccer star with the F.C. Barcelona.

Stops-and-goes along the way is fraught with rebel militias, border guards, drug/human/sex traffickers and con artists, not to mention harsh environments, dirty living conditions, dead-end towns and combat zones Coulibaly experiences in his yearlong journey to Spain, all with the hope of seeing his family again en route to or in France as the only drive that is left in him to finish his goal.

If certain political pundits and the unsympathetic could read this book, they just might get an inkling of what people have to go through in order to get to the so-called "more civilized" countries from its felt-tip pen and wash artistry of Barroux and the moving text of Bessora that even the sympathetic to the world's refugees and migrants would feel such disgust of such things committed against other beings or the immense vastness of how truly large Africa in scope that makes it too easy to get lost in. The book also dedicates itself on how certain political conditions and regional economic disparities -- sometimes caused by the so-called developed world -- contributes to this chaos by brain-draining generations of young people and entrepreneurs that could be fully contributing to the societies from whence they came to prosperity.

Honest and direct in its approach, Alpha: Abidjan to Paris is a soul-stirring if uncomfortable reading (as it should be) about the will and courage to go up against near-impossible odds, as a true testament onto itself on a topic that seemingly has no end or agreeable solutions from either side of the socio-political spectrum.

World-class collection of historical Caribbean photos come to the AGO

"Glendairy Prison Officials, Barbados, 1909" is one of the 3,500 historical images from the Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs recently acquired by Art Gallery of Ontario.

More than $300,000 raised by members of the city's African-Canadian and Caribbean communities to bring The Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs to the AGO

Arts Feature

The Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs, a singular collection of more than 3,500 historical images from thirty-four countries including Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago from the 19th to 20th centuries, perhaps the largest collections of such images, this incredible visual record contains studio portraits, landscapes and tourist views the Art Gallery of Ontario announced on June 5th that it had acquired for their permanent collection.

Bringing to life the changing economies, environments and communities that emerged following the abolishment of slavery in the region, the Collection includes nearly every photographic format available dating from 1840 to 1950, including prints, postcards, daguerreotypes, lantern slides, albums and stereographs.

"We are excited to have been part of bringing this important collection of Caribbean photographs to the AGO," said major donors Drs. Liza and Frederick Murrell.

"Displaying and preserving these works in our diverse city is an exceptional opportunity for us and future generations. So many people, school groups and communities will be positively impacted by seeing and studying these works, and the personal and collective histories they contain. Supporting this acquisition has allowed us to be active participants in shaping our cultural identity."

The acquisition was made possible in part by the generous contributions of a group of twenty-seven donors, the majority of whom are from Toronto's African-Canadian and Caribbean-Canadian communities. Collectively, the donors raised over $300,000 with a lead gift from the Murrells. For many of the donors, it was their first collective gift to a mainstream cultural organization. The largest known collection outside the Caribbean, The Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs now positions the AGO as a leader in Caribbean photographic research, and will make its debut in an exhibition come 2021.

Assembled by New York-based filmmaker and photography collector Patrick Montgomery as a casual intellectual interest, a part of this collection comes to the AGO as a promised gift. A member of the Board of Trustees of George Eastman Museum himself, Montgomery had been building this collection since 2005, acquiring them from across the Caribbean and Europe. With over 60,000 objects, the photography collection at the AGO is deep in its holdings of portraiture, press photography, pop photographica, photographic albums and social documentary photography.

"Not being a scholar or a historian by training, I had taken the collection as far as I could and wanted to find a home for it where the work could be shared with the public," Montgomery explained. "There is a lot of scholarship about the origins of photography in the 19th century in America and Europe, but practically none about this region. And the study of the photographs is a window into the culture and history of these islands."

"Coconut Palms, Kingston Harbour (circa 1895)" taken by J.W. Cleary as part of the extensive Montgomery Collection, poised to be displayed at a AGO exhibit planned for 2021.

"As far as I could tell, no museums were collecting these," he continues. "Most of the photographs come with no dates, captions, or photographer credits. But as the collection got bigger, I was able to cross-identify locations and events. I was also able to start identifying the photographers who operated studios on each island and was able to assemble collections of their work."

Under the careful stewardship of Sophie Hackett, AGO Curator of Photography and Julie Crooks, Assistant Curator of Photography, the AGO continues to acquire a diverse range of photographic works from around the world. "This ambitious group of donors raised an impressive sum in less than a year, on the strength of these works and their ties to Toronto," Crooks said. "It's an exciting moment for the AGO Collection and for the Black and Caribbean communities here." Michael and Sonja Koerner AGO Director/CEO Stephan Jost added: "The strategy is simple: what we collect is what we study. What curators study is what we show. And what the AGO shows becomes culturally important."

Back in 2018, thanks to a generous gift by Martha L.A. McCain, the AGO also acquired Fade Resistance, a collection chiefly of found Polaroids documenting African-American family life from the 1970s to the early 2000s. Assembled by Toronto artist Zun Lee, this Collection began with Lee's discovery of a box of Polaroids on the streets of Detroit in 2012. These vivid images chronicle milestones such as weddings, birthdays and graduations as well as personal slice-of-life moments, offering contemporary views long ignored or erased by mainstream culture.

"I'm grateful that this collection has found a committed custodian in the AGO, preserving images that offer a testament to Black visual self-representation," says Lee. "For years, these images have served as conversation starters for people to come together and share their personal stories. I look forward to working with the AGO to engage old and new audiences in offering their own take on what it means to be seen."

These works, like the previous Casa Susanna photographs and the World War I albums acquired and exhibited by the AGO, who just recently restructured their admission price to free, unlimited admission for all visitors 25 and under and a $35 Annual Pass; further strengthen the gallery's commitment to exploring the artistic, historical and social impact of photography in its broadest sense. Works from the Fade Resistance Collection will also go on view at the AGO in 2021.

***

For more information, call 416-979-6648 or visit ago.ca.

EDITION #227 - WEEK OF JUNE 3-9, 2019

Majorette domo divas dominate jazz fest line-up

Left-right: Diana Ross, Cecile McLorin Salvant and the Downchild Blues Band featuring Dan Aykroyd come to the Toronto Jazz Festival this June.

Toronto Jazz Festival 2019 Preview

With icons hailing from Motown, Afro-Cuban and gospel to a couple of young lionesses established and rising, the Toronto Jazz Festival enters its thirty-third summer later this month (June 21-30) with over a unprecedented 175 free performances and events over its ten-day run centered around the Yorkville area, including a family playdate with Cirque du Soleil and Mardi Gras night at the Royal Ontario Museum (100 Queen's Park) on its opening weekend.

Major headliners performing at Sony Centre (1 Front Street East) has the legendary megastar Diana Ross (June 24; very few tickets left as of this writing) who's still killing it onstage at age 75 and Grammy-winning jazz singer/songwriter Norah Jones (June 26 - SOLD OUT) that is just as flexible with any and all genres. Meanwhile at Koerner Hall (273 Bloor Street West), Canadian jazz vocal powerhouse Emilie-Claire Barlow hits the stage June 25, Cuban legend Omara Portuondo, best known for her collaborations with the historic Buena Vista Social Club; brings her farewell One Last Kiss tour after seven decades June 26 and latest singing sensation and recent Glenn Gould Protege Prize laurete Cecile McLorin Salvant makes a triumphant return to the festival June 27 with acclaimed pianist Sullivan Fortner, set to perform moments from The Window (Mack Avenue), that took home the Best Jazz Vocal Album Grammy this year.

A couple of big bands hit the big 5-0 at the fest with an free all-star assembly celebrating the Downchild Blues Band on June 22 at the TD Mainstage on Bloor (Bloor Street West; corners between Avenue Road and St. Thomas Street) June 22 includes a few fellow Canadians, actor/blues aficionado/The Blues Brothers co-founder Dan Aykroyd, Late Show with David Letterman band leader Paul Shaffer and blues-rock great David Wilcox, Louisiana bluesman Kenny Neal and Downchild alumni Gene Taylor; as the soulful brass-and-bass ensemble Tower of Power at The Danforth Music Hall (147 Danforth Avenue) on June 25 (SOLD OUT) also marking five decades on the road.

The Horseshoe Tavern (370 Queen Street West) will host a special double bill performance on June 26, featuring local electric bassist Rich Brown's Rinsethealgorithm and Ghost-Note, the new project from Snarky Puppy's percussion duo Robert "Sput" Searight and Nate Werth which pushes the boundaries of jazz, which also features former Prince backup bassist MonoNeon and Academy Award-winning Italian composer Nicola Piovani (Life is Beautiful) performs a special concert at TIFF Lightbox (350 King Street West) on June 20 in conjunction with the Italian Contemporary Film Festival.

Returning to Yorkville for the third consecutive year, festival organizers took some bold moves by bringing in even more entertainment by occupying the tony downtown shopping enclave for the fest's full two weekends.

"Our approach to this year's event was to turn Yorkville into the musical heartbeat of the city by bringing all the vibrancy, culture and passion the jazz community has to offer," said festival CEO Howard Kerbel. "We have curated a line-up that offers music lovers a chance to fully immerse themselves in everything from once-in-a-lifetime performances by iconic artists to discovering artists who are from halfway around the world, to learning about artists they never knew were from Toronto. The celebration will be palpable."

Opening weekend kicks off June 21 on Cumberland Street, which will be closed the entire duration of the festival as it pays tribute to New Orleans along with a vibrant Mardi Gras Carnival- themed edition of the Royal Ontario Museum's Friday Night Live and Cirque du Soleil providing entertainment with hula hoop workshops and other child-friendly programming. Headlining the evening at the TD Stage on Cumberland Street (100 Cumberland Street) are the veteran Hot 8 Brass Band, local fan favourites Heavyweights Brass Band, OKAN and Larnell Lewis to out-of-towners Delvon Lamarr, Melissa Aldana and Nubya Garcia.

On June 23, the fest's first-ever Gospel Sunday as 12-time Grammy award-winner Pastor Shirley Caesar headlines the TD Mainstage on Bloor afternoon event with the Toronto Mass Choir, then changes gears in the evening with emcee Shad, host of the International Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning series Netflix documentary series Hip-Hop Evolution, curating an line-up of hip-hop jazz acts Oddisee & Good Cmpny, Elaquent and more with Shad himself closing out the event.

In partnership with CBC Music, the JUNOS 365 stage will celebrate Canadian musicians as the festival spotlights the very best in Canadian jazz with Juno winners and nominees Mark Kelso and the Jazz Exiles, the Dave Young Trio, Alexis Baro Quartet, Carn Davidson 5 and Hilario Duran Trio will perform late night at the Gatsby Bar in the Windsor Arms Hotel (18 St. Thomas Street) from June 21-25. And other not-to-miss acts include Lester McLean and Big Smile Brass Band both on June 23, Moneka Arab Jazz (June 26), noted Canadian drummer Norman Villeneuve bringing his ensemble in celebrating the centenary birth of Art Blakey (June 27) in Yorkville and the Drew Jerreku Trio at Sassafraz (100 Cumberland Street; June 29).

***

Ticketed events now on sale. For more information, visit torontojazz.com, ticketmaster.ca (Diana Ross), rcmusic.com (Cecile McLorin Salvant, Emilie-Claire Barlow and Omara Portuondo) or iccf.com (Nicola Piovani).

Boreal kisses from Kapuskasing and a galactic grin goes interstellar

CONTACT Photography Festival 2019 Reviews

Part 4 of a 4-part series

Left-right: Dear Nani's "Nani in a Safari Hat"(left)/"Self-Portrait as Nani"(right) by Zinna Naqvi and Ethan Murphy's "Cottage (spring)" and "Cottage (winter)" from What's Left and What's Gathered.

Group Exhibit: The New Generation Photography Award

Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen Street West, 2nd Floor

Through June 9; Sundays-Thursdays 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

CONTACT's New Generation Photography Award exhibit in selecting three young emerging Canadian talents under 30 at the Gladstone Hotel starts off with Zinna Naqvi's Dear Nani exploring personal, gender and colonial narratives based on her Indian grandmother's honeymoon photos taken just shortly before Partition that (violently) created the divisive states of India and Pakistan in 1948, as she does parallel sidings of the restored archival inkjet prints next to her own colour gelatin silver print reproductions.

They reflect an youthful innocence and playful manner with her grandmother dressed up in her husband's clothes just for kicks (and Naqvi's copycats, as seen in "Nani in a Safari Hat" next to "Self-Portrait as Nani"), whether its about the message of cross-dressing in a then closed-up society in the midst of the Indian Subcontinent's darkest chapters at the time the original photos were taken; accompanied by her five-minute video installation Veena of images of women in traditional saris projected onto Indian-styled textiles to reflect on the immigrant experience -- some fidget, some look despondent and out of focus -- in capturing those feelings well.

Ethan Murphy's What's Left and What's Gathered has the St. John's, Newfoundlander tracing a life journey in his two pivotal moments: his move to Toronto to further his career and his father's passing, as he looks back to places he'd known from his father's rural birthplace of Bell Island for all its simplicity to the socioeconomic disparities that now remain over the loss of its mining and fishing industries. It's the Canada that most people know about on the surface realities, yet very few have seen them with their own eyes.

And Ghanaian-Canadian artist Luther Konadu brings his treatise Gestures on Portrayal that contests the dehumanizing of the North Americans of African descent, using family and friends in his studios to help out; in doing casual photos of just being their normal selves in diptychs, polyptychs, text and re-photography in black and white and colour compositions holding a certain mellowness, even in the presentations given here in whatever the viewer's preconceived perceptions get challenged here.

Scenes from Moyra Davey's Sepia from her Ryerson Image Centre retrospective..

Moyra Davey: Scotiabank Photography Award/Meryl McMaster: As Immense as the Sky

Ryerson Image Centre, 33 Gould Street

Through August 4; Tuesday-Fridays 11 a.m-6 p.m. (Wednesdays 11 a.m.-8 p.m.), Weekends 12-5 p.m.

The Toronto-born, New York-based Moyra Davey gets honoured for her four decades of internationally-renown work at the Ryerson Image Centre retrospective for the fest's major Scotiabank Photography Award, firstly at the New Media Wall video installation at the entranceway Sepia, an preview ode to 16mm filmmaking on the works of James Baldwin, Pierre Vallreres and Dalre Giroux, as part of her forthcoming release I Confess; over the meaning of language, colonialism and revolution on a eight-channel video loop; before moving onward to the main gallery that mostly centres on auto-fictional artwork of the everyday, along with that of her sisters.

Highlights include the collages of her ongoing "EM Copperheads No. 1-150" series of extreme close-ups of discarded and disintegrating U.S. Lincoln pennies since 1990 about unique individualism, the 2011 multimedia adaptation of Lynne Tillman's 2006 novel American Genius, A Comedy on lingering personal tragedies as "Trust Me" and the long-gone New York newsstands remembered in the chromogenic 1994 "Newsstand" series about their once-purposeful existence.

And 2011-2014's "Subway Writers" of mostly oblivious subway passengers on platforms and in subway cars -- even after 9/11 -- and the semi-"making-of" video companion Hemlode Forest recounting her nervousness of pulling it off and other self-confessions as something like people-watching; the exhibit serves itself of noticing the unnoticeable and each have their own stories to tell.

Don't skip pass the University Gallery, as you'll find the photorealistic fantasy worlds of Meryl McMaster for As Immense as the Sky in a series of photos taken in various places around Canada melding both European and First Nations mythologies.

As much as it does talk about early Canadian history (found in "Harbourage for a Song" (featured) on colonialist arrival and exploratory voyageurs in "On the Edge of This Immensity"), it would be hard not to see the oft-strained relationship of Aboriginal Canada and enforced European settlement with such boldness, dressed up in whimsy and her personal conflicts in which she tries to reconcile her Euro-Cree roots, especially in "Calling Me Home" based on the tragic Cree parable "The Buffalo Child Stone" about a bison both raised by humans and bison and the dilemma he faces on which side to choose in a conflicting situation.

Left-right: Jonathan Stainton's "Leaves in the Face" and Pierre Ouelette's "Petite neige sur foret nord-ontarienne," from the Falling for Film exhibit.

Group Exhibit:Falling for Film

Barbara Frum Atrium, CBC Toronto Headquarters, 250 Front Street West

Ended May 31

Seventeen CBC photographers placed their best work in the propped-up showcase Falling for Film, from veteran photojournalists to average hobbyists; exhibiting on their love for the medium that has undergone quite a few changes in these few short years alone and their hope it still does have a future in whatever it make take.

Some were straightforward of capturing historical moments like Martin Trainer's frontline witness to the Northern Irish sectarian violence of the 1970s ("Running Soldier") and Washington D.C. bureau photographer-videographer John Burles ("Flag") to artsy photos "Leaves in the Face" and "Petite neige sur foret nord-ontarienne," where the former by Jonathan Stainton and the latter done by Pierre Ouelette on a snowy day in a Kapuskasing boreal forest purposely overexposed and given a pale reddish-pink tone demonstrates nearly-forgotten techniques that can now be (too) easily done by computer.

The Fifth Estate investigative reporter Kimberly Ivany goes the esoterical route for "Spirit Leaves Eric," Anne Megas shoots her Havana street life series ("Parque Urbano," "Carninata") in revealing the Cuban capital's bare dynamics that say less and more both at once and recent travelogue shots by CBC Toronto journo Talia Ricci ("Planet Iceland," "Sri Lankan Tuktuk at Golden Hour"), among the others involved in the exhibit share in their commonality for the point-and-shoot camera that, thankfully, hasn't completely lost its flavour yet.

Carrie Mae Weems: Anointed

460 King Street West corner, north facade (facing 80 Spadina Avenue)

Through September 6; 24/7

While the rest of festival spotlight artist Carrie Mae Weems' solo exhibits around town have been packed away, one will hang around at least up until the first weekend of September, the "Anointed" public installation tucked between King Street West and Spadina Avenue feting the accomplishments of Mary J. Blige as an R&B superstar and Academy Award-nominated actress.

Contrasting the purposely-blurred works of Color Real and Imagined and Slow Fade to Black series, it also acknowledges the groundwork of those who came before the so-called Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, the trailblazers who made it even possible for her to even have a successful career in entertainment today as Blige gets a Victorian-era crown, as placed by Weems, to give it that regal airs in this crimson-drenched headshot/advert portrait quite boldly as it should.

Elizabeth Zvonar: Milky Way Smiling

Westin Harbour Castle Convention Centre, 11 Bay Street, west facade

Through April 15, 2020; 24/7

After a yearlong delay due to structural assessment concerns, Vancouverite Elizabeth Zvonar finally brings her "Milky Way Smiling" installation to Harbourfront's Westin Harbour Castle Convention Centre and it was worth the waiting time.

A simple digitalized "bending" of our galaxy into an upward arc has its own cheeky charm to it that could turn anyone's frown upside down come rain or shine. Zvonar re-contextualizes the vastness of the stars to truly shine upon us, as we all could use that boost to our everyday lives and unrough the hard, cynical times that we currently find ourselves in.

***

Some CONTACT 2019 exhibits continue after May 31 throughout the city (check the website) and most venues are FREE. For more information, call 416-539-9595 or visit scotiabankcontactphoto.com.

EDITION #226 - WEEK OF MAY 20-26, 2019

Aladdin maintains some live-action worthiness

Aladdin (Walt Disney)

Cast: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari

Director: Guy Ritchie

Producers: Jonathan Eirich and Dan Lin

Screenplay: John August and Guy Ritchie; based on the 1994 animated film screenplay by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and from the One Thousand and One Nights folk tale Aladdin and The Magic Lamp

Film Review

Alright, so Disney's live-action remakes series took a ungraceful stumble from the Tim Burton-directed Dumbo (which I liked) a couple of months ago -- and even don't get me started on the upcoming Lady and The Tramp (my all-time favourite film!!!) going directly to their Disney+ streaming service later this year -- but redemption is found in Aladdin in giving it a half-decent tweak from the beloved 1994 animated musical fantasy-adventure.

Golden-hearted street urchin Aladdin (Massoud) and his monkey Abu roam the streets of the prosperous Middle Eastern kingdom of Agrabah, trying to survive on whatever they can pilfer and ducking the city guards, who one day come across Crown Princess Jasmine (Scott) in the marketplace disguised amongst her people to get away from her sheltered palace life and her father the Sultan (Navid Negahban) looking to marry her off to a suitable prince.

Lurking in the palace corridors is his power-hungry Grand Vizier Jafar (Kenzari) who schemes of getting a fabled lamp from the Cave of Wonders where, according to its guardian Tiger God (voice of Frank Weller, reprising his role from the original); only the purest 'diamond in the rough' can enter the treasure-laden cavern for all of the powers it contains, and will stop at nothing to get it.

Having somewhat taken Jasmine's bejewelled bracelet previously (along with her heart), Aladdin attempts to break into the palace in order to give it back, only to get busted by Jafar who offers him clemency in return of getting the lamp. After a mishap and betrayal in the Cave of Wonders, Aladdin accidentally summons the Genie (Smith) within the lamp who grants him three wishes while giving him the rundown of the possible consequences of what they might bring, either fortune or misfortune.

Like the Arabian Tales-themed cinema of the 1960s and '70s, Aladdin follows the same pattern of those bygone matinee features (minus the Arab stereotypes that plagued them, including the Disneyfied one) through co-writer/director Guy Ritchie (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; Snatch) surprising pulling off a authentically palatable family film with a lot of colour and substance, like turning the "One Jump Ahead" and "Prince Ali" sequences into a fully-fledged fun Bollywood musical spectacles.

The cast is worthy with Canadian actor Massoud does well as the heroic titular character in performance and singing (except for sounding weak in his cover duet with Scott for the Academy Award-winning "A Whole New World") and Scott gets a lot more action than her animated counterpart did and good in song, despite the previous controversy that came up with her being cast in the role as its heroine; Kenzari really plays his villainous turn to the hilt and Nasim Pedrad as Dalia is an interesting and refreshing new addition here being Jasmine's most trusted maidservant and confidant.

And absolutely no worry over Smith's duties as the Genie, mixing his musical and comedic talents as being his best role in many years by turning it into his own Genie with great competence, makes a good team-up with Massoud and never, ever overshadows the legendary Robin Williams' iconic vocal performances of the original. Somewhere, Williams is beaming proudly.

Alan Menkin keeps his original score with Tim Rice and late partner Howard Ashman intact with a couple of new tunes, like retuning "Arabian Nights" and Jasmine's power anthem "Speechless" by the award-winning songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land; Dear Evan Hansen) in its context of trying to be feminist that doesn't quite hit the mark, but never the lest still stands up especially with Smith's exuberant hip-hop take on "Friend Like Me."

Other than "Speechless" and the CGI renditions of animal characters Abu, Rajah and Iago (voice of Alan Tudyk) being the only disappointing factors here, Aladdin is one of Disney's better live-action efforts in a while adults and kids can thoroughly enjoy while maintaining the originality of its cautionary tale about getting what you wish for and the value of friendship along with some new ideas in place (upcoming release The Lion King on July 19 has some game to step up to).

Mythical African epic rich and complex

Black Leopard, Red Wolf

by Marlon James

640 pp.; Bond Street Books/Penguin Random House Canada

Hardcover, $36

Fiction/Fantasy-Adventure

Book Review

Trying to come up with something after doing a fictionalized account of the 1976 attempt on reggae legend Bob Marley's life in A Brief History of Seven Killings that earned accolades and a Booker Prize, would seem to be a hard act to follow for author Marlon James like maybe do a collection of short stories or something. Instead, his fourth novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a grandiose epic tale set in a mythical Africa rife with fantastical beasts, witches and necromancers, violence and sex.

As the first entry of his Dark Star Trilogy, the bounty hunter who's only known as Tracker, has a unique talent in finding the lost and disappeared via a powerful sense of smell and, for a fair price, he'll find practically anything from missing husbands to runaway criminals and slaves in this world occupied by the competing North Kingdom and South Kingdom laden with city-states and tribes that are always at war at one point or another.

He one day crosses paths with Leopard, a shape-shifting soldier of fortune and old friend whom he's shared many an adventure -- and venture -- who propositions him a job from Amadu Kasawura, a rich slaver in the city of Malakal, to be part of a group looking for a particular boy who disappeared three years ago and will pay handsomely for his return.

Breaking his own rule on working alone, he sets off across many cities, marketplaces, jungles, savannas and rivers on foot, transport and a couple of magic spells along the way with Leopard and his bowman boy Fumeli, Sogolon the Moon Witch, several other mercenaries including Sadogo, a tall and muscular man belonging to the Ogo race (who absolutely hate being called giants) and one incredibly loyal buffalo.

However, the mission is fraught with wild goose chases, betrayals and many perils by legions of those who want to deter them from their cause from deadly assassins to frightful monsters, not to mention internal fighting among his companions over the worth of their assignment, which makes Tracker question on who wants to stop them and what is so special about this missing boy they don't even know if he's even dead or alive?

Reading something like a cross between J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium, a Shakespearean drama and George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones epic, James weaves a universe that, by its own admission, slowly builds his own and borrowing ancient African mythologies of a complex and dynamic range of characters, names, places and events that takes some getting into before you're drawn into this world with great interest.

His main character, Tracker, is more of a antihero than hero here coming from a troubled past and haunted conscience of his loner existence, who finds himself unwittingly caught up in some kind of convoluted political intrigue and is more than willing to draw blood -- and there's enough of it to fill up a few Olympic-sized swimming pools in these pages to make Sam Peckinpah and Quentin Tarantino insanely jealous -- to find out the truth that makes him a interestingly dark figure, as well as his more mysterious man-animal best friend.

If you're expecting a digestible read from Black Leopard, Red Wolf, prepare to invest in some considerable time getting lost in it all the author offers from his fertile imagination (so read it before the planned film adaptation of it from Creed/Black Panther star Michael B. Jordan producing comes around, according to certain trade news) and that his second instalment to the Dark Star Trilogy can't come any sooner enough after you've finished the last page of it.

Tough brotherly love

The Brothers Size (Soulpepper Theatre)

Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane

Thursday, May 16; 8 p.m.

Theatre Review

In its ingeniously unique pit set design within a 360-degree stage by Ken MacKenzie and Raha Javanfar's directive lighting designs, The Brothers Size crams an emotionally-bound 90-minute treatise on how the connection between brothers (blood and non-blood) can be from playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, as it weighs heavily in performance by cast and direction.

Out in the Louisianan bayou town of San Pere lives Ogun Size (Daren A. Herbert), who ekes out an honest living in his auto repair shop while trying to get his younger brother Oshoosi (Mazin Elsadig) to get things done and in compliance to the terms of his parole after a stint in prison. Oshoosi, however, is restless, lazy and yearns to escape the humdrum of this backwater and Ogun's disciplinarian protectiveness and loner existence.

Then, with the arrival of Oshoosi's former cellmate Elegba (Marcel Stewart) in a beat-up car and a few reasons for catching up with old times, Ogun worries over his kid brother's welfare and the fear that he might be tempted into doing something dubious again. With all these forces swirling about, sooner or later something is bound to happen that may determine the future course of their relationship.

Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu directs McCraney's middle instalment from his The Brothers/Sisters Plays trilogy -- who also was the co-winner for Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for the critically-acclaimed 2016 indie drama Moonlight, based on his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue -- in expertly interpreting the West African Yoruba storytelling method, dream sequences and a stage scriptural readout procedure, not found too often in typical Western-style theatre; breathes this refreshing hybrid alive, which won't alienate audience members.

Herbert puts a lot out in his performance as his brother's keeper that while well-meaning, his tough-love approach can be suffocating on the burdens of responsibility and inability to connect with anyone outside his family circle comes with a price of his own happiness and learning to let go; Elsadig's Oshoosi has true depth flitting in and out with his memories of prison and exploring his own sexual awakening and, while a bit smallish, Stewart manages to make his trickster role full-fledged and even.

A tenderly soul-stirring and heart-aching melodrama on brotherly love, The Brothers Size brings about some discussions about manhood, race in America and self-acceptance, combined with dance and a live call-and-response musical onstage accompaniment by local percussionist/composer Kobena Aquaa-Harrison; already making this one of this year's best Toronto theatre experiences. Highly recommended.

***

The Brothers Size continues through June 1. For tickets and information, call 416-866-8666 or visit soulpepper.ca.

Colonial photo perspectives and spotting troublemakers

CONTACT Photography Festival 2019 Reviews

Part 3 of a 4-part series

Left-right: Abbey Lincoln, Eartha Kitt, Koko Taylor and Katherine Dunham as part of Carrie Mae Weems' Slow Fade to Black installation montage near Metro Hall.

Carrie Mae Weems: Slow Fade to Black/Scenes & Take

Metro Hall, corner of John Street and King Street West (Slow Fade); TIFF Lightbox, corner of Widmer and King Street West (Scenes & Take)

Through June 4 (Slow Fade) and May 31 (Scenes & Take); both daily 24/7

Festival spotlight artist Carrie Mae Weems' outdoor installations theme around the downtown Entertainment District fit the area proper firstly with the montage Slow Fade to Black featuring just a sample of 20th-century African-American women entertainers as purposed blurred publicity shots to take in their positions regarding race, gender and the struggles they endured as such.

From Abbey Lincoln to Mahalia Jackson, the thirteen larger-than-life portraits along the street facing the Princess of Wales Theatre take in their hard-earned positions -- and legacies -- achieve a sense of immortality, but it's a double-edged message of sorts the artist imposes that clearly says it all on how "invisible" these ladies were outside the white-dominated mainstream entertainers of the period with subtle starkness.

Cater-cornered from there is TIFF Lightbox's Widmer/King West window showcase that houses Scenes & Take as a poke at white male privilege and power in the film industry, although made back in 2016, certainly is timely piece in the wake of the Me Too Movement.

Both taken on the set of the acclaimed TV political thriller series Scandal, Weems models herself as the faceless everywoman "starlet" trying to break into the biz in the first one "The Director's Cut, Scene 4, Take 7, Rolling..." on a boardroom set as a symbol of power as the script-like text on the left reads off a casting call of big-name filmmakers (all white and male, initialized except in the festival book) who make the final say on everything; whereas the dialogue for "The Bad and The Beautiful" describes the atypical "casting-couch syndrome" scenario that has been part of the American film industry since day one.

The lighting, greys and blacks come out very strongly here and composition of the piece are testaments to female empowerment, gender politics and occasionally race that still needs to be addressed and corrected, since no African-American (as of yet) has ever run a major Hollywood film studio.

The sand photo images from Gallery 44's Developing Historical Negatives group exhibit "Untitled (Presence in Absentia)".

Group Exhibit: Developing Historical Negatives

Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography, Suite #120, 401 Richmond Street West

Through June 1; Tuesday-Saturdays 11 a.m-5 p.m.

Developing Historical Negatives addresses on the colonial aspects of archival photography by the five participating artists, who all have personal narratives attached to them; and its effective dimensions left behind brings a lot a discussions to the viewer since the artists -- with the exception of one -- like ourselves, are all immigrants to Canada and puts our own colonial history into perspective.

Krista Belle Stewart's 22-minute livestream video installation "Potato Gardens Band" made in 2014 has her performing on her maternally-inherited property on Spaxomin (Douglas Lake) in Westbank, British Columbia to a Vancouver audience based on her First Nations great-grandmother's wax cylinder recording in the Sylix tongue of the Okanagan Nation. While the scratchy song plays out, even if it fights against the windy conditions, it still sounds ethereal and ghostly against the two-channel split screen landscapes.

The sand photo imagery on raised platforms of "Untitled (Presence in Absentia)" by Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen are the exhibit's most interesting highlight, as portraits of her Vietnamese great-grandfather lay in state as salvaged from her grandfather who immigrated to Canada in the early 1980s as part of the post-Vietnam War exodus with tenets of Zen Buddhism looks as pretty as it does in its fragile state; as Morris Lum's Subtle Gesture series about the life of Chinese-Canadians residing in Calgary, as taken from the Calgary Herald newspaper; keeps it all straightforward be it celebrating the Lunar New Year in 1959 or a 1973 local beauty contest winner on depicting the normalities of life in this community.

"The Promised Land" is the Deanna Bowen 28-minute video installation taken from a 1962 CBC docudrama of their Heritage series about the contribution African-Canadians made as farmers in Alberta on the struggle and survival. Featuring the legendary Canadian jazz vocalist Eleanor Collins (who is still alive at age 99), it's a re-enactment of a church gathering singing gospel tunes -- based on her family's relocation from Oklahoma to the Canadian West in 1910 -- done in archival overscan, complete with soundtrack extra frame markings, sheds light on a long-forgotten piece of Canadian history.

And based on her life in Dhahram, Saudi Arabia, the photo collage PETRO SUBURB placed in the showcases outside the gallery has Hirja Waheed describe the isolationism felt in housing complexes for Saudi and American oilmen working in the oilfields modelled on postwar suburban planning and Jim Crow laws of the 1950s as the original gated communities of the times, as foreign workers too were segregated from their American counterparts as a shameful example of exporting racism to other countries in cartographic photos, acrylic and Letraset transfers on vellum paper.

Ester Hovers: False Positives

Ontario Square Parking Pavilion, Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queen's Quay West

Through May 31; Daily 24/7

Netherlander photographer Ester Hovers' usage of security camera surveillance photos for the False Positives outdoor installation at Harbourfront Centre's Parking Pavilion tower pretty much sums up the world we've lived in since the events of 9/11 about picking out potential threats that seem benign, but make us morally check ourselves.

Taken from public square camera stills in downtown Brussels and placed on all three sides of the structure, it really becomes a parlour game of who to trust: is it that group of businessmen in three-piece suits, a bunch of hipster youths running around or the hijab-wearing teen on her cellphone? Here she brings out that sense of paranoia arising from the second nature we've come to acquire as a unfortunate force of habit in the early 21st-century on who's a possible troublemaker and who isn't.

Bianca Salvo: The Universe Makers

Northbound Platform, Osgoode TTC Station, 181 Queen Street West

Through June 3; Mondays-Fridays 5:55 a.m.-1:55 a.m., Saturdays 5:55 a.m.-1:50 a.m. and Sundays 8:00 a.m.-1:50 a.m.

The montage installation of The Universe Makers sure stirs up some nostalgia of the 1960s Space Race era in the Osgoode TTC station, as fifteen pictures in a row in black and white and colour courtesy of Italian photographer Bianca Salvo of what is now commonplace regarding space travel, it was still a relatively new thing in the public eye that we almost take for granted.

At times hinting at science-fiction ("Time and Again") to old-time science reality ("Mission of Gravity") from shots of public-viewing rocket launches, aerial photographs to model diagrams, the exhibit reminds us that this still hasn't left our collective imaginations to perhaps revisit these old ideas it provides in our all too hectic daily grind.

Group Exhibit: People Moving People

Bay TTC Station, 1240 Bay Street

Through May 31; Mondays-Fridays 5:50 a.m.-2:20 a.m., Saturdays 5:55 a.m.-2 a.m. and Sundays 8:05 a.m.-2 a.m.

Gripe as we all do about the Toronto transit system, it's the only one we've got to get around the Greater Toronto Area as the TTC dips into their archival library and allow a few other photographers do new photos in the group exhibition People Moving People at the Bay TTC Station, showing off its history with pride and ponder of their expanding future in continuing to serve our fair city for decades.

Showing of a city growing and a transit system (trying) to catch up with the times, be it checking out boxy-looking subway trains and fashion designs ("On the platform at Sherbourne Station, 1965"), defunct bus lines and outfits ("TTC Hillcrest Shop, 1931") and to the more recently-opened stations ("Interior of Pioneer Village Station, 2018"), it never lets us forget the painstaking work and temporary inconveniences we endure then and now, we surely can't imagine Toronto without it nor take it too much for granted.

***

NEXT: Part 4 -- exhibits from the Gladstone Hotel, Ryerson Image Centre and more. CONTACT 2019 continues through May 31; most venues/events are FREE. For more information, call 416-539-9595 or visit scotiabankcontactphoto.com.

EDITION #225 - WEEK OF MAY 12-19, 2019

Middling caper-comedy remake

The Hustle (Metro-Golden-Mayer/Universal)

Cast: Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson, Tim Blake Nelson, Alex Sharpe

Director: Chris Addison

Producers: Roger Birnbaum and Rebel Wilson

Screenplay: Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, Dale Launer and Jac Schaeffer; story by Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning and Dale Launer, based on the 1964 film Bedtime Story and 1988 film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Film Review

Whether the world needed another updated version of the conman comedy classic Bedtime Story , made with David Niven and Marlon Brando or its better-known remake with Michael Caine and Steve Martin as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, remains to be debated in the female-reversal version,The Hustle, which more or less aims best yet feels a bit half-hearted in the final product.

British ex-pat Josephine Chesterfield (Hathaway) resides in France's Cote d'Azur as a culturally-refined grifter with local Inspector Brigitte Desjardins (Ingrid Oliver) in her pocket, who gives her the rich targets to swindle in return for a cut from the earnings. All seems well until she comes across Penny (Wilson), a younger and crasser American version of herself trying out her luck out in these parts that she considers effective competition.

Unable to dissuade her potential rival from muscling in on her territory, Josephine reluctantly takes Penny under her wing in teaching her the tricks of the trade in targeting the jerky rich guys who've wronged women in the past, until they come across Thomas (Sharpe), a boyish, sweet-natured high-tech billionaire in town on business whom they wager on who can seduce him first and scam the most out of, that gets a lot more hectic than they bargained for.

Co-screenwriter Jac Schaeffer pads the script, with Dale Launer doing a rewrite on his Dirty Rotten Scoundrels adaptation; with some slapstick and gross-out humour for the most part that seems a far cry from the more better work she did on this year's Captain Marvel and for first-time director Chris Addison, other than shoot some nice panoramas around Mallorca, Spain -- subbing as the French Rivera -- and Wilson's pratfalls, doesn't do much justice in bringing anything new here.

While Hathaway and Wilson make for some good onscreen chemistry and their pseudo-catfight rivalry entertains, as well as Oliver being really super-sharp as the corrupt French policewoman in cahoots with Josephine and Sharpe playing the naive pawn between them; it's obviously a vehicle piece for Wilson (who's also co-producer here) trying to garner whatever breakout-star momentum she earned as Fat Amy from her Pitch Perfect trilogy. She does have the comedic smarts, but this isn't the one to really do it for her (like I once said, give her a Fat Amy spinoff or even an action-comedy to do).

This film might appeal to Wilson's fans and those for a taste for lowbrow laughs on seeing a satire on female empowerment, The Hustle unfortunately stretches itself thin to be a middling comedy caper, other than the animated opening sequence is probably the best thing going for it; and the few half-hearted chuckles in-between.

Darkly stalwart bio-ballet

Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA (Eifman Ballet/Show One Productions/Sony Centre)

Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, 1 Front Street East

Saturday, May 11; 8 p.m.

Dance Review

Measuring the debris of great artists' lives can be found in whatever masterpieces can be found in the agony of creation, as the Russian contemporary ballet corps Eifman Ballet presented in their remounted 1993 biographical classic Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA for a three-night run at the Sony Centre, by retouching on what founder/choreographer/creator Boris Eifman couldn't have achieved a quarter-century ago since its debut into his darkest work he's brought yet to his audiences.

To the opening strands of his "Symphony No. 5 in 'E' minor, Op. 64" in Act I, we find the great composer (Oleg Gabyshev) in his final minutes with visions of characters from his works and his devilish/angelic alter-ego (Igor Subbotin) dancing around in his scattered memory, when he is sponsored by his patron Countess Nadezhda von Meck (Lilia Lischuk) and meeting his future bride Antonina Milyukova (Lyubov Andreyeva) in his younger days, while the feelings of internal isolationism closing in him in a series of duets and ensemble numbers.

Even when sequences from Swan Lake (one of the prettiest scenes in the production) and The Nutcracker swirl about him, his happiness never lasts long as the pressure to come up with even greater works -- an occupational hazard for any artist, especially among perfectionists -- and the societal mores of the times to marry Antonina put him in a conundrum that ends the first part with Fisher, Krylov and Reznik revolving around in a mobile connubial bed.

A quiet romantic duet starts Act II with Fisher and Reznik dancing to "Serenade for Strings in 'C' Major, Op. 48, 2nd Movement: Valse" and the first-half tending to Tchaikovsky's later works, Eugene Onegin and the somewhat lesser-known The Queen of Spades, where the latter is its most interesting ensemble piece involving a Joker figure (Konstantin Savchenko) and the physicality it takes on. As Antonina succumbs to infidelity and madness, the final number Fisher's solo does to "Symphony No. 6 in 'B' Minor, Op. 74 'Pathetique,' 4th Movement" ends everything on a stalwart, if rather funereal, finish.

Eifman makes the world of 19th-century Russia comes alive in the two-hour ballet from his deft choreography unfolding playfulness, tragedy, drama and joy only in a way he could interpret Tchaikovsky's mood and spirit so well, amidst the lighting designs he co-creates with Alexander Sivaev, Olga Shaishmelashvili and Vyacheslav Okunev's costumes of light pastel taffetas and earth tones mingling together without clashing each other and Art Deco-like elements found in Zinovy Margolin's set designs.

The principal dancers are all very well, including the multiple roles Krylov takes on as Tchaikovsky's Double in various outfits throughout; but the full company gets just as much credit in bringing this much internally troubled maestro, who gave the world some of classical music and ballet's greatest hits; a more sympathetic light on his darkly, if beautiful world.

Like any great psychological tragedy, Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA stands on its own merit in execution and delivery on the man and the times he had lived in by the Eifman Ballet that always brings his fans back for more whenever they come into town, in the hope that we won't have to wait too long again to see what they'll bring next.

Straight outta Brooklyn (via Syracuse), Cannes and the East Mall

CONTACT Photography Festival 2019 Reviews

Part 2 of a 4-part series

Caitlin Cronenburg: STRANGE/BEAUTY

Coldstream Fine Art, 80 Spadina Avenue, Suite #208

Through June 8; Tuesdays-Thursdays 12-6 p.m. and Fridays-Saturdays 12-5 p.m.

In her latest solo exhibit, Caitlin Cronenburg does a tricky balance of celeb and non-celeb subjects that breaks some convention in a mix of semi-grainy black and white digital monochromatic works with STRANGE/BEAUTY. Consisting mostly of her acclaimed 2012 coverage of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for the New York Times and the artwork for Drake's 2016 album Views , one can see her talents on display that makes one see why she's become a in-demand photographer of late.

"Photo Call" (featured) with the world's press photographers all gathered for the red carpet shot at Cannes is quite noticeable in its 121.92 x 182.88-centremeter format along with a behind-the-scene "Waiting" of getting the celebrity POV on what it's like to be the center of attention to "Calm Before the Storm" showing a sense of average serenity as cinema workers prepping the next film screening.

The colour portfolio is quite vivid of the Torontonian pop superstar Drake that seem to accentuate his glamorous side, be it living large ("Les Boys", "Diamond"), placing him in more fantastical imagery with a Rolls-Royce ("Desert") and a psychedelic flower garden ("Golden Afternoon") or the ludicrously impossible of him atop outside the CN Tower ("Views") may show-off both the subject and the artist's home-grown colours on what is important to PR imagery -- or in what was once called trick photography, courtesy of Photoshop nowadays -- yet they are impressive in their content.

Other black/white works "Emptiness," "Whist," "Drift" and "Alice" of a semi-nude model in a empty apartment, punk icon Iggy Pop in a rare relaxed portrait shot ("Iggy") and "Cigar" where a young woman leaning on a car hood and lighting up a stogie is the show's most artistic work as one views on this rising photography star's portfolio and gives wonder on what her next projects will be.

Carrie Mae Weems: Blending the Blues

CONTACT Gallery, 80 Spadina Avenue, Suite #205

Through July 27; Tuesdays-Friday 11 a.m-6 p.m. and Saturdays 1-5 p.m.

As part of her five-piece solo exhibition around town, festival spotlight artist Carrie Mae Weems distinguishes herself on bringing the African-American and female experience to her works in Blending the Blues of chromatic shades in the fest flagship venue CONTACT Gallery, as the Brooklyn (via Syracuse)-based photographer takes a more subtle approach which wins over more than using blunt tactics.

"Color Real and Imagined" (featured) has a purposely-blurred portrait of jazz legend Dinah Washington with primary colour blocks partially obscuring her as a statement on the fading legacy of performers -- also in the extended installation at Metro Hall, Slow Fade to Black (to be reviewed in another post) -- awaits at the entrance of the gallery, followed by the statement of institutionalized racism of her native land found in the series "All the Boys" of blue-tinted, blurred photos of perpetrators and the police file records of their charges, two males and one female; alongside as positioned mug shots except for two "(Profile)" pictures as standalone full-figured shots like ghostly figures.

Left-right: "Untitled (Spike Lee Grid)" (detail) and "Blues and Pinks".

The three 25x5 photo grids pieces that show varying degrees of primary colours of artistic tributes "The Blues (a.k.a. MJB)" with R&B star Mary J. Blige and "Untitled (Spike Lee Grid)" of the Academy Award-winning filmmaker both in different poses and differing blue chromatics and "Untitled (Colored People Grid)" of poses of African-American children in colourized black and white photos references the complexity of skin tone and racial vernacular modulations that has plagued Africans since European colonialism and slavery.

And Weems re-tints the 1963 Children's Crusade of the Civil Rights era photos, as immortalized by Charles Moore, of peaceful demonstrators being attacked by batons, police dogs and fire hoses in "Blues and Pinks" doesn't lose its impact about police brutality, in conjunction with the "All the Boys" series sadly show that not much has changed in the 56 years since they were previous photos taken.

Left-right: Sage Szkabarnicki-Stuart's "Montreal Vista" and Moira Ness' "East Mall" as part of the Gladstone Hotel's Revelation exhibit.

Moira Ness/Sage Szkabarnicki-Stuart: Revelation

Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen Street West, 3rd Floor

Through June 9; Sundays-Thursdays 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

Toronto photo-artists Moira Ness and Sage Szkabarnicki-Stuart share a space on the Queen Street West's Gladstone Hotel for the joint exhibit Revelation that take on some dark themes and wry humour about the environment and self-identity. Starting with Ness charting around the overpasses and alleyways of Toronto with her haunting and forbidding examples "Lakeshore" and "East Mall," through straightforward means and a little digital manipulation kind of follows you in an eerie manner.

And Szkabarnicki-Stuar's take on the urban, natural and home environs she models herself in, she makes a mockery at consumption on flora and fauna well depicted be it seen in "Montreal Vista" with her in a food dress a la Lady Gaga surrounded by raccoons seemingly looking for a meal; "Urban Stream," a address on waterway pollution takes on a ghastly manner to the Bjork-esque inspiration flirts in works "My Room" and "Urban Bath."

***

NEXT: Part 3 -- Carrie Mae Weems continued and more. CONTACT 2019 continues through May 31; most venues/events are FREE. For more information, call 416-539-9595 or visit scotiabankcontactphoto.com.

EDITION #224 - WEEK OF MAY 6-11, 2019

Feeding on a everyman's bag of rage

Off Season

by James Sturm

213 pp.; Drawn & Quarterly/Raincoast Books

Hardcover, $29.95

Comics and Graphic Novels/Literary

Book Review

The turbulence being endured in the era of the Trumpian presidency would be stressful enough for anyone and the toll it takes, even as the tail-end of the first term approaches upon us. In James Sturm's Off Season , he looks back on its early days in this sobering and poignant fictional account tied to one individual, who sees nothing but frustration in the events leading up to and beyond the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, as his own personal life seemingly falls apart.

Mark, a freelance tradesman living somewhere in the Northeastern United States, struggles with a series of life events: his marriage of seven years with Lisa has unravelled mid-way through the presidential race; coping with single parenthood with their two kids Suzie and Jeremy; putting up with Mick Wheels, a crummy employer of a contractor who seems to do better financially than him while he lives in a grubby apartment and tries to make ends meet and the emotional distances with his own parents and absentee elder brother Alan now living in Colorado.

Juggling between being a good father and son, a reliable worker, maintaining a sense of civility with his ex during their sessions with a marital mediator and reflecting on past memories of a better time, something inside Mark snaps that causes him to go over the edge where a incident arises that could lead to serious legal consequences for him -- and how best to be able to move onwards.

Drawn in an anthropomorphic manner in blue monotones, Sturm focuses everything on an everyman in effective melodramatic overtures for Off Season, touching on this moment of history feeding on a bag of rage in every panel, as the author fully invests in creating characters one could sympathize and relate with, which doesn't come too often in graphic novels much.

Yet, for all of its darkness, there are tender moments that give a sense of calm for Mark -- who oddly looks like what would happen if Charles M. Schulz had drawn Snoopy as a middle-aged anthropomorphic man -- whenever he engages with family, be it the custodial times with the kids, the (few) brief armistices he has with Lisa or spending time with his folks; plus questioning the mundane aspects of life itself.

As short as it is within its 200-so pages, Off Season feels quite real over relationships and oftentimes class divisions in Sturm's nadir analysis of the American Dream and the nuclear family unit shifting in these trying times that tests many souls, not to mention on what could happen next; as one of this year's best graphic novels.

Pre-cosmopolitan Ethiopia to Post-Soviet socio-political plums

CONTACT Photography Festival 2019 Reviews

Part 1 of a 4-part series

Alex McCleod: GHOST STORIES

Division Gallery, 45 Ernest Avenue

Through June 8; Tuesdays-Saturdays 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

A multi-sensory multimedia exhibit awaits one when viewing Torontonian artist Alex McCleod's GHOST STORIES in the Junction Area-located Division Gallery, as he pushes some eclectic boundaries with his digital landscapes be it some imaginary boreal forests in the pink wintry "Pinkhills," prettified "Rainbow Mountain" or "Snow Molecule" and "World" (featured) done in chromogenic prints.

Challenging triptych pieces "Illusion #1" and "Illusion #2" breaking the mould on what a triptych should look like or the computer-animated fantastical sea life and/or alien life done in varying speeds from the ultra-slow "Mirror" and "Small Forest," rotational "Paint Stroke" to the fast-morphing loop of "Purple Flowers" and floral cranial-like "Two Halves."

And don't miss the sculptural works that share the same commonality with "Shell Tower," cutesy "Friends" and "Cyclone" with a touch of faux fur to the acrylic/flocking/PLA material used and cacti-looking "Topiary Cloudstock."

Michael Tsegaye: Future Memories/Chasm of the Soul: A Shattered Witness

BAND Gallery, 19 Brock Avenue

Through June 2; Thursdays-Saturdays 12-6 p.m. and Sundays 1-5 p.m.

Cultural loss is just one of the inevitable consequences of progress and the developing world is no different as one could witness Ethiopia in just the last few years playing catch-up with the world not only in nurturing its first genuine democratic offshoots, but in infrastructure as noted Addis Ababa-born Michael Tsegaye presents two exhibits at the Afrocentric BAND Gallery out in the Queen Street West corridor.

The first on its ground floor, the 2009 photo essay Future Memories, are shots taken around the capital city's Arat Kilo district along Sengetera Street of ramshackle residences making way to gentrification and urbanization that is commonplace in all of the world's cities in granular black-and-white have that archival touch, relying heavily on the shadows and greyscale than most, a sense of nostalgia seeps in where it works in its favour.

A mingle of figures wander about from a middle-aged woman propped up against a corrugated shack wall looking reflectively to a pensive-faced young girl posing against a brick wall. Rickety construction structures have that skeletal imposition that makes one question its stability of the apartments being built. And in all of it, one does see the old ways disappearing here as the area now is a bustling financial district for multinationals since these were taken.

And the 2010 series Chasm of the Soul: A Shattered Witness on the second floor gathers 64 cemetery photos found abandoned bears the account of time decay and elemental factors. Mostly cracked, faded, blurred and often (ironically) ghostly, there is a sad beauty to them all, including the ones that are discoloured that Tsegaye manages to preserve as a quiet, sobering reminder of impermanence of memories for the long-dead.

Clockwise, left-right:"Anaklia, Georgia, 2013"; "Minsk, Belarus, 2013" and "Slutsk, Belarus, 2013" as part of Sputnik Photos' LTA 10: Palimpsest installation at Brookfield Place's Allen Lambert Galleria.

Sputnik Photos: LTA 10: Palimpsest

Allan Lambert Galleria, Brookfield Place, 181 Bay Street

Through May 31; Mondays-Saturdays 6 a.m.-1:45 a.m., Sundays 9 a.m.-1:45 a.m.

Taxpayer-wasted vanity projects are nothing new the world over, but few could ever top the ones across the post-Soviet Europe terrain as the Polish-based international photographer collective Sputnik Photos in their ongoing documentation project known as the Lost Territories Archive (LTA) showing at Brookfield Place's Allan Lambert Galleria, the tenth in their series taken between 2008 to 2016 from the Baltics to the Caucasus ranging from the once-seemingly practical to the downright absurd.

Former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili's legacy can be found in a number of these photos, most notably his plans to build this luxury hotel at the Black Sea town of Analika in 2012, with only a solitary tower that looks like something from a science-fiction film set (or whatever the hell it was supposed to be) now wistfully decaying on the seashore sandbar.

The other the Alphabet Tower in Batumi that once housed Saakashvili's own personal television station Rustavi 2 Broadcasting Company (sort of his version of the FOX Network) that was completed and impressive for all its glorious 130 metre-high glass-and-metal framework, before the 2013 presidential election swept him from office and country afterwards and now is a abandoned aviary deathtrap for any bird who accidentally flies in but never fly out again.

If any can remember the 1988 Armenian Earthquake where the world came to its rescue, "Pyramid built with more than a 1,000 sheaves of hay, Spitak, Armenia" is a gross reminder by the residents on the failure of state planning of faulty construction in a earthquake zone, not to mention the faded promise of reconstruction of permanent homes as most of the town's population still live in temporary housing 31 years after the fact.

Perhaps the exhibit's ugliest -- and saddest -- photos are the blatant disregard for the environment from a Kazakhstan underground nuclear testing site conducted in secret from 1949 to 1989 without telling any resident in Semey about 150 kilometres west of the site that's still contaminated to the broken-down bridge that connected the Uzbek mining town of Yangiabad with the world that the Russians took uranium from for its nuclear weapons program until 1991 with high levels of radiation remaining in its drinking water.

However, LTA 10: Palimpsest isn't all gloomy viewing. A couple of examples, like the beautification program to eradicate graffiti in the Belarusian capital of Minsk turns some building walls into interesting abstract planes of street art and an Armenian art teacher's temporary home is doubled into a teaching atelier for budding young students after he lost his home in the earthquake; does demonstrate that in the post-Cold War world there are some worthwhile tradeoffs.

***

NEXT: Part 2 -- exhibits from the Gladstone Hotel, CONTACT Gallery and more. CONTACT 2019 continues through May 31; most venues/events are FREE. For more information, call 416-539-9595 or visit scotiabankcontactphoto.com.

EDITION #223 - WEEK OF APRIL 29-MAY 5, 2019

Epic grandoise finale for Endgame

Avengers: Endgame (Marvel Studios)

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth

Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo

Producer: Kevin Feige

Screenplay: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; based on the Marvel comic book series by Jim Starlin and characters by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee

Film Review

From what was last year's biggest WTF cinematic cliff-hanger in living memory with Avengers: Infinity War, it definitely does not disappoint in the least with Avengers: Endgame with a strong grand finale to end all grand finales not only for Marvel Studios' Avengers series (at least, for now), but also the end of an era culminating from ten years and 22 films for the Marvel Cinematic Universe closing the book on its long-running Phase Three series while supplanting some sneak peeks for what's to possibly come.

Without wanting to reveal a whole lot of plot spoilers, this is what can be said: Shortly following the events of Infinity War, surviving core Avenger members Tony "Iron Man" Stark (Downey Jr.), Steve "Captain America" Rogers (Evans), Natasha "Black Widow" Romanoff (Johansson), Bruce "The Hulk" Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Asgardian thunder god Thor (Hemsworth) are bewildered and broken in their failure to stop the evil alien warlord Thanos (Josh Brolin) from wiping out half of the universe's sentient beings -- and their fellow superheroes -- in the cataclysmic intergalactic event referred to as The Vanished with the help of the Infinity Stones.

Even with the help of James "War Machine" Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Guardians of the Galaxy remnants Rocket (Sean Gunn; voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), along with newcomer Carol "Captain Marvel" Danvers (Brie Larson) joining the fray; all seems lost in reversing the damage until Scott "Ant-Man" Lang (Paul Rudd) miraculously arrives at their headquarters with their only hope that involves a lot of high-stake risks...and a few sacrifices in the process.

(Like I said, there are enough spoilers to fill up a large minefield here and then some without tripping up one or several.)

If Avengers: Infinity War was the MCU's most ambitious project to date, it's fairer to say that Endgame is their darkest and personal best in scale, scope and concept through screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's brilliantly Herculean adaptation without cramping one particular character for another (seriously, these guys deserve a Academy Award nomination for their effort).

All the cast members are well out played here, particularly Jeremy Renner depicting a roguish and angrier Clint "Hawkeye" Barton never seen previously; plus a few special cameos from past MCU films big to small and a couple of new faces to appear sometime in the foreseeable future.

Although the directing Russo Brothers do a fantasic job here, they could have shaved a few unnecessary minutes off certain moments and plotlines in the three-hour (!) marathon running time that feel a little too filling for its own good (but, really, you won't care in the slightest). Expect the unexpected in the drama, humour, serious kick-ass action, surprises and closures in store with the epic proportions Avengers: Endgame dishes out all round. Highly recommended.

Photo fest focuses on the F(emale)-stop

Curator/CBC photographer Talia Ricci's "Planet Iceland" makes part of the evolutionary collective CBC Photographers' Falling for Film exhibit (May 1-31) at CBC Headquarters' Barbara Frum Auditorium (250 Front Street West) at this year's CONTACT Photography Festival.

Women photographers gain more in the lens for this year's month-long photography festival

CONTACT Photography Festival 2019 Preview

As long as photography has been around, so have women who've more than had their fair share in front and behind the camera with famous shutterbugs ranging from legends Margaret Bourke-White to Dickey Chapelle to present-day icons Annie Leibovitz and Zanele Muholi. It wouldn't be the first time the citywide CONTACT Photography Festival, that starts this Wednesday (May 1); has had a fair balance of women photogs over its many years of existence, as this year it will have a prominent spotlight in its varied themes of the 250 venues across town in mostly free events, including a Women and Photobooks Symposium at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas Street West) on May 4.

Flagship gallery and fest headquarters CONTACT Gallery (80 Spadina Avenue, Suite 205) presents the Canadian premiere solo representation of Syracuse/New York-based artist Carrie Mae Weems with the first of five locations of her socio-political view of the African-American experience, Blending the Blues (May 1-July 27) highlights Weems' approach to colour and its associated theories from notable women entertainers to the concepts of race in America, that are also explored at other public installation sites Slow Fade to Black at Metro Hall (55 John Street) and Scenes & Take at TIFF Lightbox (350 King Street West).

Weems' work continues at the University of Toronto's Justina M. Barnicke Gallery (7 Hart House Circle) with a focus on the ongoing systematic abuse of police brutality against people of colour in the series All Boys (Blocked) and (Profile); and public installation tributes to contemporary figures R&B superstar Mary J. Blige in Anointed and the works of filmmaker Spike Lee in Untitled (Spike Lee Grid), both at 460 King Street West.

The Ryerson Image Centre (33 Gould Street) again hosts the annual Scotiabank Photography Award exhibit -- as well as the fest's launch party May 1; 7-11 p.m. -- centering on this year's recipient Toronto-born, New York-based Moyra Davey in a retrospective showing of portraits, still lifes, photographs of subway scenes, along with a series of her film and video works for her multimedia practice examining interiority and disclosure, and the intersection of private and public discourse; As Immense as the Sky featuring Ottawa-based First Nations artist Meryl McMaster's examination of the overlapping cultures and histories -- public and private, familial and non-familial -- of both her Indigenous and European ancestors, along with secondary exhibits of Maximum Exposure 24 and Adrian Raymer's Rejects, all running from May 1 to August 4.

At U of T's Hart House's "Talking Walls" Exhibition Space, Rwandan human rights advocate Samer Muscati photographs the post-Genocide healing process for the exhibit Rwanda Retold: The Enduring Stories of Genocide Survivors (through May 31).

Other major exhibits involve Ethiopian photographer Michael Tsegaye's Future Memories (through June 25) at BAND Gallery (19 Brock Avenue) on the changing and disappearing face of his hometown and nation's capital Addis Ababa over the last fifteen years; Not Elsewhere (May 1-31), a site-specific installation at the Aga Khan Museum (77 Wynford Drive) by multidisciplinary artist Sanaz Mazinani's evoking the past and present methods of recording and distributing knowledge to explore the aesthetics and politics of war through her ceiling atrium installation; the AGO's Photography Collection: Women in Focus, 1920s-1940s (through November 10) from their personal archives from the interwar years on the proliferation and expansion of photography that expressed a new vision in the age of modernism, rapid change and experimentation, with a focus on women both behind and in front of the camera; the Inuit women videographers collective Arnait Ikajurtigiit: Women Helping Each Other (through June 23) at Art Gallery of York University (4700 Keele Street, Accolade East Building); Netherlander photographer Nadine Stijns' long-term focus on migration, diasporic communities and national identity in post-colonial regions in photographic project, For A Nation Outside a Nation (May 1-August 30) at The Bentway (250 Fort York Boulevard); the international Polish-based Sputnik Photos collective explores the physical, political and sociocultural terrain of post-Soviet European regions in LTA 10: Palimpsest (through May 31) at Brookfield Place's Allen Lambert Galleria (181 Bay Street) and Canadian photographer/filmmaker Louie Palu's new body of work, Distant Early Warning (May 18-August 18) documents the military presence in the North American Arctic at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (10365 Islington Avenue).

Other notable and smaller exhibits that shouldn't be ignored, among the many, are Rwanda Retold: The Enduring Stories of Genocide Survivors (through May 31) at Hart House's "Talking Walls" Exhibition Space (see Carrie Mae Weems' All Boys (Blocked) and (Profile)) as photographed by Rwandan human rights advocate Samer Muscati on the Genocide's 25th anniversary year; Roger LeMoyne's The Republic of Port au Prince (May 1-31) project documents the Haitian capital from 2005 to 2017 focuses his photographic exploration on this continual mingling of the city's contradictions at Nikola Rukaj Gallery (384 Eglinton Avenue West) and Robert Mapplethorpe returns to Olga Korper Gallery (17 Morrow Avenue) with The Outsiders (May 2-June 1), the gallery's eighth solo exhibition of the iconic 1980s artist's work that investigates the relevance of Mapplethorpe's photographs in the current political climate even three decades after his untimely demise.

Caitlin Cronenberg's STRANGE/BEAUTY (May 3-June 8) at Coldstream Fine Art (80 Spadina Avenue, Suite 208) features her selection of monochromatic works, including a 2012 New York Times photo-diary of the Cannes Film Festival and a series of portraits of Torontonian pop megastar Drake; I Am Cuba (May 1-25) explores the development and transition of architecture in Cuba over several decades from pre- to post-revolution from Alina Holodov at Elaine Fleck Gallery (1351 Queen Street West) and Bruno Lessard's Chengzhongcun (May 22-June 16) offers a glimpse into China's urban villages, also known as "villages in the city" after dark at Gallery 1313 (1313 Queen Street West).

The Brazil-Canada Chamber of Commerce launches the fourth edition of Exchanging Glances: Images of Two Cultures (May 2-30), focusing on the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Toronto through photographers Ana Rodrigues of Brazil and Canadian Robert DiVito portraying their home cities with their thrilling, exotic and creative aspects at Society of Sound Recording Studio (1444 Dupont Street, Suite 41) and the Japan Foundation (2 Bloor Street East, Suite 300) has Katsuhiko Mizuno's Four Seasons of Gardens in Kyoto (through July 31), a exhibition of forty photographs, including ten for each season from the ancient capital, as taken over a five-decade period.

***

Most of the CONTACT 2019 Festival's venues/events are FREE. For more information, call 416-539-9595 or visit scotiabankcontactphoto.com.

EDITION #222 - WEEK OF APRIL 22-28, 2019

A Pulitzer for the Queen of Soul; Requiem for Notre Dame

Cartoon Tributes

Two cartoons to mark the posthumous awarding to the legendary singer/songwriter Aretha Franklin, who passed away last year at age 76, a Special Citation Pulitzer Prize to honour her five decades-long contribution to the American pop, soul, gospel and R&B songbook as announced by the Pulitzer Prize Committee on April 16; as well on the very same day Paris' beloved Notre Dame Cathedral's centuries-old wooden rafters and spire burned while under renovations yet its stone structure remained intact, that was mourned and honoured by the citizens of Paris, of France and around the world.

To help with efforts of restoration funding of the Notre-Dame Cathedral, visit frenchheritagesociety.org (The Americas/English),fondation-patrimoine.org (France/Francais)or fondation-patrimoine.org/les-projets/sauvons-notre-dame-de-paris (Fondation Patrimoine's direct Donation Page in English/French)

Critical massively sound nuke debate

Copenhagen (Soulpepper Theatre)

Young Center for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane

Sunday, April 21; 1:30 p.m.

Theatre Review

Since its 1998 debut on London's West End, Copenhagen has been debated over its usage of historical fiction in bringing about the touchy subject of scientific responsibility, moral ambiguities and the consequences that follow to task as Soulpepper Theatre does in mounting the real-life World War II drama with its sound acting and direction that will have you asking those questions after long seeing it.

The three characters situated here are nuclear physicists Niels Bohr (Diego Matamoros) and Werner Heisenberg (Kawa Ada) and Bohr's wife Margrethe (Kyra Harper), who meet up sometime in the afterlife to discuss and debate over the events that led to the two Nobel Prize-winning scientists and best friends to fallout over their final meeting together at the Bohrs' residence in Denmark back in September 1941.

Nazi Germany had invaded the country the previous year and war was now in fullest swing across Europe. Heisenberg, the regime's top physicist, who was in Copenhagen to give a scientific talk at the German Cultural Centre also paid a visit to his former mentor, who taught him when he was younger and more ambitious in the 1920s; to go over some equations that baffled him, as he was assigned by Hitler to develop nuclear fission for scientific, economic and military purposes.

Both men are in precarious positions, since they were working on the practicalities, theories and ethics over building the first nuclear weapon, with Bohr sympathetic to the Allied effort whilst trapped in occupied Denmark; and they were the rare exceptional Jews (momentarily) allowed to continue on without harassment under the Nazis, in which whatever passed between them on that fateful autumn evening changed the course of their lives -- and the world -- forever.

Director Katrina Darychuk has a steady grip in hand over the actors and of the solid Tony-winning material written by Michael Frayn in the flurry of mind games, science babble and personal back stories on what was and wasn't said and whether they were either colleagues, debaters or even spies on either side of the equation.

Matamoros puts on a powerful performance as Bohr as one of his best with his long-time association with Soulpepper as a man conflicted with his later role in helping the Americans build the A-bomb and torn over his former friend he considered as a son to him and Margrethe. Harper plays the testifier, observer and commentator quite well being the better-half while adding some guarded humour and Ada uncompromisingly displays Heisenberg as the German patriot who also feels the same way as Bohr does, yet the stakes are higher for him than anyone to succeed or fail.

Lorenzo Savoini's minimalist set, projection and lighting designs keeps it focused more on the play's subject than on surroundings as fitting, composer Richard Feren's ominous score and classical music mix and the simple costuming of Gillian Gallow makes Copenhagen, in its two hour-and-twenty minute run time, an engaging production on the choices we make like a cautionary/morality tale on relationships and the boundaries science should and should not cross in this great meld of history, melodrama and mystery.

***

Copenhagen continues through May 4. For tickets and information, call 416-866-8666 or soulpepper.ca.

Dancing across Tchaikovsky's universe

Eifman Ballet brings creative genius and agony with their classical music tribute, Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA, to Sony Centre this May

Dance Preview

The Russian contemporary ballet company Eifman Ballet returns to the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts (1 Front Street East) for a remount of their acclaimed 1993 production Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA, with a brand new choreographic expression by its choreographer and Artistic Director Boris Eifman for a three-date stand May 9-11 along with some advanced technological touches that weren't available then that has gotten them wider praise since its 2016 revival.

"Having been turning to Tchaikovsky's music for many years, I realized how deep and bottomless the composer's world was," Eifman said about his favourite composer. "I came to understanding of a variety of themes related to his work, his psychic identity, relationship with loved ones. All this was not sufficiently studied by me earlier. I wanted to create a work, in which I could delve deeper into the environment of Tchaikovsky's creative torment."

Previously adapting many of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's music to their own ballets from 1980's The Idiot, 1997's Red Giselle, 2004's Musagete, 2005's Anna Karenina and 2009's Eugene Onegin, the St. Petersburg-based company's epic production sets itself over the final days of the composer behind immortal classics The Nutcracker to Swan Lake, as he contemplates -- and agonizes -- over through a gallery of characters from his creations fraught with delirious, phantasmagorical set pieces.

"Eifman Ballet is a perennial favourite with Toronto audiences. Their unabashed emotional commitment and unparalleled physical prowess are a rare spectacle," said Svetlana Dvoretsky, President and Executive Producer of Show One Productions, a co-presenter with Civic Theatres Toronto. "With Tchaikovsky. PRO et CONTRA, we witness the marriage of two great Russian artists, Tchaikovsky and Eifman, each at the pinnacle of their respective art forms. Interpreted by Eifman Ballet's exquisite dancers, the result is a powerful meditation on the nature of genius and the price of fame."

With set designs by Zinovy Margolin and costuming from Olga Shaishmelashvili, the ballet itself is not out to be a classical music jukebox ballet over the life of Tchaikovsky of any sort, but to give credence to their compositional structures and how they've maintained themselves to open interpretation that can differ from generation to generation exposed to his music without losing their meaning as Eifman understands from his perspective.

"I freed myself from a specific technique, yet I am trying to express everything that can be expressed by human body," Eifman says about PRO et CONTRA, as well as his other works. "It is most subtle instrument; body potential is unique and deserves to be advanced. It isn't merely about technique. We are immersing ourselves into the depths of human soul. That can only be expressed by new means of dance, not by classics or neoclassic. I believe we have found symbiosis between traditional Russian ballet culture of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the fruit of contemporary world choreography."

***

Tickets now on sale. For more information, call 1-855-872-7669 or visit sonycentre.ca.

EDITION #221 - WEEK OF APRIL 15-21, 2019

Penguins doc neat (if tough) viewing

Penguins (Disneynature)

Narrator: Ed Helms

Directors: Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson

Producers: Roy Conli, Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey and Jeff Wilson

Screenplay: David Fowler

Film Review

Who wouldn't love watching a documentary on penguins? Those dear little aviary clowns of the Antarctic get their own with Disneynature, the fourteenth edition since its inception twelve years ago in re-branding their True-Life Adventure nature films from the 1940s to '60s; offers Penguins that shines when it does in keeping it all interesting and accessible of the creature that continues to fascinate -- and amuse -- us humans.

Filmmakers Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson follows Steve, a five-year old Adelie penguin, for over a good year as he engages in that ritual of nesting season for the very first time along with millions of his kind each springtime to a rocky shoreline and the hopes of snagging a mate. After gathering enough rocks to build a nest and attract a female for life, he finds one with Adeline where they make their first family together.

But it's not your usual mating rituals and chick-rearing they undertake between those months between spring and late autumn as one will see. The survival of the fittest is a major constant here, whether avoiding predatory orcas, leopard seals and South polar skuas (a seagull-like bird in these parts) to the harsh environs of hurricane-like katabatic winds gusting at 241 KPH from the Pacific lasting for three days on end; to ensure their hatchlings make it to maturity. For these shorter species of penguins, they're really tough little birds.

The Office and The Hangover trilogy's Ed Helms adds some humour with his narration throughout the film -- as if penguins actually need the help since they're already comical, anyway -- in keeping with the film's even pace and composition and the time length isn't very long so it'll keep younger kids and adults entertained for the most part, along with its vista shots on how incredibly beautiful this wild and forbidding refuge is.

Other than some cheesy 1980s R&B and rock tunes that are eye-rolling choices used in some scenes (REO Speedwagon? White Snake? Patti LaBelle?) to again make it unnecessarily funnier and seeing algae build-up underneath the ice that is clearly visible due to global warming the filmmakers oddly don't seem to make note of, Penguins is a neat little nature doc in which end credit footage of the filmmakers enduring the same unforgiving conditions -- including the smells from a herd of elephant seals -- their subject matter put up regularly and the peaceful coexistence between ourselves and the local fauna is just as interesting and appreciative of their work.

Sisterly fantasy-comedy gives it the works

Little (Universal)

Cast: Regina Hall, Issa Rae, Marsai Martin, Justin Hartley

Director: Tina Gordon

Producers: Kenya Barris, James Lopez and Will Packer

Screenplay: Tina Gordon and Tracy Oliver; story by Tracy Oliver

Film Review

Billed as an African-American female reversal take of Big, the Will Packer-produced Little under the helm of co-writer and director Tina Gordon (Drum Line; What Men Want) does take on fresh and sassy approach to the fantasy-comedy genre, even when it bemusedly follows its basic formula at the target audience it's highly aimed at.

Jordan Sanders (Hall) is a successful Atlanta-based high technology mogul who has it all but is a bullying, micromanaging Scrooge-y boss from hell to work under with no social life -- with the exception of convenient boyfriend Trevor (Luke James) -- or friends to speak of, and no one suffers her more than her assistant April Williams (Rae) who's at her beck and call almost-24/7 with her own dreams to follow.

Under pressure to impress a silver-spoon client (Mikey Day) for a new app, Jordan turns the screws tighter than usual and makes the big mistake in ticking off a visiting donut food truck owner's tween daughter (Marley Taylor), a budding magician, who waves her magic wand in casting a spell to make her the same age as her.

She wake up the next morning as her thirteen-year old self (Martin) with the afro-puffed hair and gangly glasses, but still with same attitude. With April the only one onto her new transformation and on the hook with a hardball Child Services agent (Rachel Dratch), the younger Jordan is forced to go back to the alma mater, Windsor Middle School, who suffered the same kind of bullying that made her the person she is now with another alpha female (Eva Carlton) who's just as bad.

While April takes her place as de facto boss and seizes the opportunity to promote her grandiose idea to help the company, the two women see how hard their reversed roles are, in particular with Jordan who befriends the resident school geeks (Thalia Tran, Tucker Meek, J.D. McCrady) in helping them win the school's talent show, as well as both learning a lesson in humility and a sisterhood slowly emerges.

Other than twisting the genre format around, Little offers very little (no pun intended) to what's been done already, just with a adult-ish vibe and the rarely-seen look of a woman -- and woman of colour at that -- running a independent high-tech company is a refreshing change of pace, combined with a peppy script and direction Gordon guides the film.

There's some good casting throughout the film and between Hall and Rae exchanging witty banter, but it's Martin who owns it mirroring the adult Jordan's sass and raging hormones whenever the male eye-candies of James and Justin Hartley playing a divorced schoolteacher crosses her wake; not to mention Tracee Ellis Ross voicing the virtual assistant Amazon Alexa-like HomeGirl.

The film, as previous said, pretty much remains as formulaic as comedies go from the producers of Girls Trip, Almost Christmas and the Ride Along franchise, yet there is a sense of fun to it all and does look into how awkward it is to find oneself amongst your peers and recaptures the wonder and innocence of youth that we tend to forget the moment adult realities approaches.

EDITION #220 - WEEK OF APRIL 8-14, 2019

Pink Floyd cover band cuts close to the real deal

Brit Floyd (TO Live/Sony Centre)

Sony Center for the Performing Arts, 1 Front Street East

Friday, April 5; 8 p.m.

Concert Review

Granted, very few cover bands make the grade in trying to capture the same feel and sound, let alone in scope and size (with the possible exceptions of Dread Zeppelin, ABBA Mania or Rain) as the original group would. But the Pink Floyd tributary Brit Floyd comes pretty damn close to the mark in their one-night only performance recently at Sony Centre in doing a special year-long celebration for the seminal 1979 release of The Wall that remains influential now as it did four decades ago.

Wasting no time with the opening notes of "Outside the Wall" as performed by bassist Ian Cattell on Chapman stick, they burst into The Wall's first tracks for the next twenty-five minutes, "In the Flesh?," "The Thin Ice" and "Another Brick in The Wall, Part 1" with all the power it implies about isolationism and a son grieving over a long-dead father respectively, followed by the sadistic corporal punishment that dominated England's postwar schooling system, as expressed and experienced by its author Roger Waters; into the now-legendary protest song "Another Brick in The Wall, Part 2" as the sneering rebellion from its first lines as snarled by lead singer/guitarist/Musical Director/founder of Brit Floyd, Damian Darlington: "We don't need no education, we don't need no thought control."

After the sadly nadir maternal tribute "Mother," the band went into a barrage of other Floyd classics with "Time," "The Great Gig in The Sky" as its latter-half aurally sung by backup vocalist Angela Cervantes with deft accuracy that got her a standing ovation at the end, the lofty "Us and Them," "Keep Talking" (complete with famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawkins' vocalizations) and "Sheep" to fill in the first half of the three-hour concert run.

While the surviving original Pink Floyd members officially dissolved the group in 2014, their music still draws interest in both those old enough to have seen them live and those too young and/or weren't born yet to ever see them, as they mingled within the packed venue. The British-based group, as spun-off from the Australian version still touring the world; Darlington does his best in getting each song note-per-note with bandmates Cattell, guitarist Edo Scordo hitting the soaring riffs much like David Gilmour would, keyboardist Rob Stringer, drummer Arran Ahmun and backup singers Cervantes, Jacquie Williams and Emily Jollands.

Playing out obscure track from the 1987 album A Momentary Lapse of Reason "On The Turning Away," they kind of weaved and bobbed in doing material from The Wall with other hits in succession after intermission with the hedonistic thrill of young rock stardom of "Young Lust" and its quick disillusionment with "One of My Turns" and "Goodbye Cruel World;" the lengthy opus to Floyd's first lead singer-guitarist Syd Barrett "Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts 1-5;" the soul-searching "Hey You," "Is There Anybody Out There" and "Nobody's Home." Darlington does an impressive space-rock solo turn on slide guitar at the tail end of country-blues rocker "Wish You Were Here" during "Pigs (Three Different Ones)" before they all finalized it with some final Wall tracks "Comfortably Numb," "Run Like Hell," "Follow the Worms," "The Trial" and the acoustic folksy requiem finale done for "Outside the Wall."

If anything, the band pulls out all the stops in emulating those great Pink Floyd stage shows effects complete with the customary circular screen showing archival band footage, decent laser and spectral lighting effects, clips of Storm Thorgenson/Hypgnosis' iconic album cover artworks, computer-animated reproductions of Gerald Scarfe's The Wall animation by Bryan Kolupski (that comes off a bit cheesy at times) and, yes, even one inflatable pig to go with some of their theatrical moments during "One of My Turns" and "The Trial."

Only a couple of downers came with the overdrive of strobe and spotlights used during "Run Like Hell" was kind of a overkill moment (even for a veteran rock concertgoer like me!) and, while I understand they were heavily focusing stuff from The Wall for its fortieth anniversary, they could have thrown in fan favourites "Have A Cigar," "Learning to Fly" and "Money" for good measure. Nonetheless, Brit Floyd provides the experience of being at a Pink Floyd concert with their dedication to the material and impact of the band's legacy has that would sate any Floyd fan out there.

***

Looking for more Pink Floyd? Former Floyd drummer Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets performs April 16 and Another Brick in The Wall: The Opera runs November 13-23; both at Sony Centre (to be renamed Meridian Hall in September). For tickets and information, call 1-855-872-7669 or visit sonycentre.ca, livenation.com (Saucerful of Secrets) or anotherbrickopera.com.

Alegria hits the road again

Left-right: Cirque du Soleil President/CEO Daniel Lemarre, Vice-President of Creation Daniel Fortin, The White Singer, Chief Executive Producer Yasmine Khalil and Show Advisor Gilles Ste-Croix at last year's media conference announcing the return of their most iconic show, Alegria, on a new tour starting this month in Montreal.

Cirque du Soleil resurrects -- and refurbishes -- their all-time cherished show, Alegria, in time for its twentieth-fifth anniversary

Theatre Preview

"If you have no voice: scream. If you have no legs: run. If you have no hope: invent. What if anything were possible?"

- Original slogan for Alegria, 1994

The world was a totally different place in 1994: the Cold War had barely ended; new freedoms were being tested in Eastern Europe and a post-Soviet Russia, the freedom from the fear of nuclear Armageddon dialled back a bit and Cirque du Soleil, in marking its first ten years of existence, introduced a brand new show reflecting on these events, emotions, movements and youthful energy called Alegria.

Needless to say it practically became their signature production overnight in making them a household name (next to Saltimbanco) and their longest running one for an unprecedented nineteen years on the road. And by the time it ended its run in 2013, over 14 million spectators in 255 cities worldwide had seen it -- and for some, more than a few times -- along with the Rene Dupere-composed soundtrack album that earned them their first Grammy Award nomination, the title track became the neo-circus' unofficial theme song and continues to be their most bestselling album (physical and digital) today.

Translated from the Spanish "happiness and joy," its timeless story of the power struggle between the old and new reflects on a world transformed by many epochs since its auspicious debut a quarter-century ago: the rise of the Internet, a brand-new century, the misguided War on Terror followed in the aftermath of 9/11, the first African-American president of the United States, the euphoric Arab Spring to the more recent right-wing political shift that ascended like-minded leaders from Donald Trump to Doug Ford to power and the embryonic chaos consuming Brexit-era England.

Announced since last year, the Montreal-based entertainment group dusts off Alegria in time for its twenty-fifth anniversary beginning this month (April 18) in its hometown before hitting the road again with a four-year tour -- mostly around North America with a Toronto date this fall (see below) -- that while promising to have the same magic that's earned fans' hearts for years, it'll also give it a fresh makeover to reflect the new era it re-enters for a new generation for its audience and creative team behind it.

"We've had so many requests over the years, from our fans, [and] internally, our employees, asking us to bring back this show," said Chief Executive Producer Yasmine Khalil, who also created their currently touring ice show Crystal. "So we thought what better time to do that then as it celebrates this important anniversary.

"It was important for us to highlight the immense impact that Alegria has had on our fans as well as our company," she continued. "As we continue to look forward and strive to innovate in everything we do, we wanted to pause and celebrate one of the shows that has made Cirque du Soleil what it is today -- a global leader in live entertainment."

Performers from the revamped production of Alegria make their debut at the Gala Celebration 2019 broadcast on Quebec television this past January performing to the classic song from their soundtrack, "Vai Vedrai."

Running the new revival is Director of Creation Daniel Ross and stage director Jean-Guy Legault, who both kept in touch with the original creator and director Franco Dragone and retired Cirque head/founder Guy Laliberte; and gave their fullest blessing of the new changes to it, along with former Cirque performer and retired vice-president Gilles Ste-Croix, who's back just as a consultant on the show. "You can not transform it too much without losing things," he assured those diehards who may worry about its 21st-century refurbishment. "But we will, of course, try to go further."

"In this case we're really doing a rereading," Ross said, fully aware of the show's legacy to the company and its fans. "It's as if I took a Michel Tremblay [play] from the 1970s...I wouldn't do it the same way. It would be a new director. It's a little bit that principle applied to Alegria. It's one of our classics and, like [all] classics, it can be revisited and reread by a different creative team. For us, what was interesting with Alegria is when we started digging in and looking at what the main themes of the show were, we figured out that it was still very [timely] and it was still something that was very touching in this day and age.

"It's a show about the quest for power, it's a show about the winds of change in society and it's a show about the passage from darkness to light and for us this was still a very current subject to talk about."

While this is some type of relief for some, others have to question Cirque's decision in returning Alegria on tour. After all, they've built their reputation in being innovative in coming up with new shows over the last thirty-five years and nostalgia was never their style (with the exception of their music-based residency shows in Las Vegas, the Beatles' LOVE, the Micheal Jackson show ONE and the long-retired Elvis Presley show, Viva Elvis). So does this mean, as a "private" joke amongst their fans go, they've finally run out of ideas?

"This does not stop us from having [the] twelve projects being created right now," said President/CEO Daniel Lamarre. "We're going to keep the concept as it is, we're just going to modernize the show in terms of costumes, scenography and so that's the creative challenge we have." But there is only thing Lamarre wants for the show to fully retain, is its humour. "Acrobats can be replaced; we can find stronger people," he said. "But the spirit of Alegria was special. At the time, we had recruited Russian clown Slava Polunin [who created the worldwide hit, Slava's Snowshow] and his melancholy humour gave the show a beautiful color."

"Alegria has marked a whole generation of Cirque du Soleil fans," explained Chief Creative Officer Diane Quinn. "We want to honour their connection to the show and recreate the emotions they felt back in 1994, while leveraging all the possibilities offered to us today. [The show] is a rallying anthem for change and hope and that is, after all, timeless."

***

Alegria launches its 25th Anniversary Tour in Montreal at the Old Port on April 18; the Toronto engagement run begins September 12-November 3 at Ontario Place (955 Lakeshore Boulevard West). For tickets and information, call 1-877-924-7783 or visit cirquedusoleil.com.

EDITION #219 - WEEK OF APRIL 1-7, 2019

Burton's endearing Dumbo remake

Dumbo (Walt Disney)

Cast: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green

Director: Tim Burton

Producers: Katterli Frauenfelder, Derek Frey and Ehren Kruger

Screenplay: Ehren Kruger; based on the Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl novel and the 1941 Walt Disney film screenplay by Otto Englander, Joe Grant and Dick Huemer

Film Review

Going for his second live-action Disney adaptation, Tim Burton steps out of his usual eccentric zone in directing Dumbo that's a few shades different from the original 1941 animated classic by pulling in a few familiar friends to help out and going for something more heartfelt and endearing than anything he's done so far in his career.

Circus rodeo cowboy Holt Farrier (Farrell) returns from the battlefields of World War I looking to get back to his old job with the Medici Brothers Circus in Joplin, Missouri, finding the challenges of being a single father to his now-motherless children and as a one-armed amputee cut out for him and the circus having fallen on hard times under its owner and ringmaster, Max Medici (DeVito).

Ever the schemer to get back his troupe's former glory, he's purchased a pregnant Asian elephant in the hopes of attracting the crowds again only to be disappointed when she delivers the birth of a large-eared baby Max considers a freak of nature, christened with the name Dumbo (Edd Odmond). However, Holt's daughter Milly (Nico Parker) and son Joe (Finley Hobbins) hearts go out to the little elephant after his mother is taken away from him after an incident and discover he has the talent to fly with those over-sized ears.

Word spreads quickly about Dumbo reaches the mega-impresario V.A. Vandervere (Keaton) who offers the ragtag troubadours a residency at his famed amusement park Dreamland -- a perversely darker parody of Disneyland with a steampunk feel -- in bringing their star attraction to work alongside his French acrobatic trophy girlfriend Collette Marchant (Green) in New York City, only to discover that there's something totally ghastly underneath Dreamland's glitter.

Screenwriter/co-producer Ehren Kruger definitely rewrites Dumbo while keeping in line to its thematic misfit characters and undercurrents found in Burton's past works; and as for the director himself, he brings about a nostalgic feel of cinematic yesteryear to the film that hardly gets made anymore as among his best in a good while.

Parker and Hobbins provide the heart of the film, with Odmond's motion-capture performance of the flying pachyderm, as plucky kids without being precocious in their roles; Burton/Batman Returns vets Keaton and DeVito are decent as polar-opposites showmen, the former being the dirty ol' capitalist entertainer while the latter maintains a heart of gold underneath his ramshackle charm. And check out interesting bit roles from Alan Arkin as Vandervere's backing financier, Deobia Oparel's ever-suffering Medici strongman Rongo and Sandy Martin as DeVito's nasally-deadpan Dreamland secretary.

Longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman works well in rearranging some of the original songs (his rendition of "Pink Elephants" along with Arcade Fire's end titles cover of "Baby Mine," are noteworthy listeners) with his own stellar work and production designer Rick Heinrichs' masterful Art Deco and early 20th-century designs fills Dumbo with wonder and endearment that makes you believe that elephants can fly (again).

Eclectic works out for Ballet BC

Ballet BC (CTT/Sony Centre)

Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Center for the Performing Arts, 27 Front Street East

Friday, March 29; 8 p.m.

Dance Review

As they slowly approached from all corners of the stage and audience one by one to gather for their opening jazz ballet number Petite Ceremonie, as part of Ballet BC's two-hour mixed programme, their first Toronto appearance in over a decade; for a two-night stand at the Bluma Appel Theatre in demonstrating their own innovativeness that hasn't diminished since their 1986 debut.

Mostly a eclectic piece as choreographed by Medhi Walerski to musical selections to Mozart, Bellini, Rodgers and Hart and Vivaldi, 2011's Petite Ceremonie kind of works like a deconstruction about balance and relationships ranging from dancing as a confining singularity and a mini-juggling act while philosophically discussing the difference between the genders over Mozart's "Serenade Number 10 in 'B' Flat Major"; a couples' dance to "Blue Moon" to Bonnie Beecher's lighting design getting playful and distinctive during its most quasi-slapstick over the absurdities of life itself in the closing piece to Vivaldi's "Winter" from The Four Seasons concerti grossi was an interesting piece and, like I said, eclectic.

Drenching itself in theatrical misting and the electric blues-rock guitar of Jimi Hendrix, energetic second and most recent number To this day came out in waves of ensemble, duos and solos with a lot of energy to it in the multicolour costuming of Kate Burrows, throwing a lot of sultriness during the slow jams during "Born Under A Bad Sign" and getting very sensuous by "Once I Had A Woman," with the moves crafted by Emily Molnar and company, before "Voodoo Chile Blues" finished it before the troupe dissolved into the ether, courtesy of James Proudfoot's lighting.

Solo Echo, as inspired by poet Mark Strand's "Lines for Winter" and Brahms' "Cello Sonata in 'E' Minor, Opus 38 -- Allegro non troppo" recorded by pianist Emmanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the company dances under Tom Visser's snowy effects and minimal lighting in the first and third movements consisting of solos and duos before going into an ensemble by the second movement involves a lot of cooperation to choreographer Crystal Pite's quiet 2015 composition about perseverance and acceptance of one's end may sound a bit of a downer way to end a programme turns out to be their most beautiful work.

Blending in contemporary and classical ballet, Ballet BC put on a most satisfactory performance and presentation of new and old works from their repertoire that doesn't alienate those of new- and old-school ballet fans much in being challenging and engaging that hopefully Torontonian audiences don't have to wait another ten more years to see again.

EDITION #218 - WEEK OF MARCH 25-31, 2019

Creepily Kubrickian psycho-thriller

Us (Universal)

Cast: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Elizabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker

Writer/Director: Jordan Peele

Producers: Jason Blum, Ian Cooper, Sean McKittrick and Jordan Peele

Film Review

Jordan Peele's follow-up to his 2017 Academy Award-winning Get Out comes with Us as another metaphorical commentary on society made into a psychological thriller package involving his trademark old-school chills and dark humour, although it might take some time to wrap one's head around it.

Gabe (Duke) and Adelaide (Nyong'o) Wilson are an average middle-class family taking a summer vacation with their kids, teenager Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and tween Jason (Evan Alex), at their family beach house and hanging out at the beach with old friends the Tylers (Moss; Heidecker) and their twin teen daughters (Cali and Noelle Sheldon) out in southern California.

A couple of nights later, a group of people show up on their driveway and engage in a home invasion -- and what makes it truly horrifying is that they're eerily splitting images of themselves known as The Tethered, all dressed in red jumpsuits led by their matriarch (also Nyong'o), that are connected to Adelaide's long-recessed childhood memories during a trip to a Santa Cruz seaside funfair one fateful summer day in 1986 now resurrected.

There are way too many spoilers to say more to this; other than the usage of camera tricks and plot twists to build suspense and surprises when its needed in borrowing some remnants of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining to make Us a stinging indictment on empty materialism and suburbanite envy writer/director/co-producer Peele succeeds for the most part, as it does tend to drag down a bit at times mid-way yet saves itself by the third stage.

Nyong'o puts in a fine performance as the haunted Adelaide and her creepy counterpart that should garner some talk during film awards season (and I'd be very surprised and/or disappointed if it doesn't) and Duke does well being the goofy comic-relief dad with a touch of seriousness to him, as does the rest of the cast. But pay particular attention to young actor Alex's dual role as being the most interesting, for his pyromaniac mute "twin" probably is the scariest amongst the bunch.

Admittedly, it would have been a hard act for Peele to best himself after the runaway success of Get Out. However, Us isn't a disappointment in any respect for its structure, theme and pace being a worthy effort from Michael Abels' incidental score, Ruth De Jong's production designs to its costuming from noted film/stage costumer Kym Barrett contributing to his unique and original approach of darkly satirizing the American Dream he mirrors here.

Soulpepper Theatre setting out for art critiques and romance noirs

A scene from the current Soulpepper Theatre production of Wedding at Aulis, an adaptation of Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis.

Theatre Preview

Old as the cliche goes, the show must go on even in the wake of its own Me Too scandal that dogged Soulpepper Theatre last year that, in spite of everything, came out of it with fairly good returns. Now under a new management, the company revealed their forthcoming summer/fall season to accompany their already impressive line-up for the spring that includes the WWII proto-nuclear morality play Copenhagen (April 6-28); the Trojan War-based Wedding at Aulis (through April 14) based on a Greek classic; sociopolitical-prodigal child play The Brothers Size (May 4-26) from Academy Award-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight) making its Canadian premiere and the three-hour award-winning dysfunctional family drama August: Osage County (May 18-June 15) that also brings in three new directors, including its new Artistic Director, veteran stage actor-director Weyni Mengesha.

Starting July 13 to August 4 is Sam Shepard's dark romantic-drama Fool For Love as directed by the company's Academy graduate Frank Cox-O'Connell on a couple living in a desert and their last ditch attempt to salvage their love. "Fool For Love clearly speaks to our [current] cultural moment, but what excited me most is how the play subverts its timeliness," said Cox-O'Connell in taking on the project. "Yes, we have this last cowboy standing at the edge of America trying to not take on the sins of the father, and we have his lover trying to forge a new way, free from the past and the cycles of dysfunction - which all feels very relevant. But their way through defies any clear meaning -- it's not aspirational, it's not cautionary, it's just...drama -- sexy, funny, scary, smart, bloody drama. It's about how we love, and how we change -- it's people performing open-heart surgery on themselves, during a high-speed chase."

Yasmina Reza's Tony-winning chamber comedy Art (August 9-September 1) delves into that age-old argument "what is art?", as a group of friends gather at one's apartment one evening to discuss over a newly-acquired artwork only to turn it into a self-examination into their relationships with one another. "For me the power of art is expressed uniquely inside each of us," said Philip Akin. "Each new viewer sees something revelatory that ricochets in some fashion and we cannot help but respond. I am pleased to be directing Art for my Soulpepper debut."

Left-right: Frank Cox-O'Connell, Phillip Akin and Jani Lauzon all make their directorial debuts for the 2019 summer/fall line-up for Soulpepper Theatre.

The unravelling of a seven-year affair follows with Harold Pinter's Betrayal (August 28-September 15), marks Nightwood Theatre's incoming Artistic Director Andrea Donaldson's directorial debut at Soulpepper, as told in reverse chronological order. "Betrayal is psychological chess at its finest. It is ruthless, delicious, and intelligent," she said. "As a director, I can't help but love works that demand extreme precision. And what a thrill to work on this play, with such an esteemed company of artists, for such a discerning audience. Betrayal is pure pleasure, the highest level of entertainment -- a masterwork."

Mengesha directs her Soulpepper debut for the timeless Tennessee Williams classic A Streetcar Named Desire (September 21-October 13) and First Nations drama Almighty Voice and His Wife (October 11-November 3) is the powerful true story, as playwright Daniel David Moses re-imagines old standbys Romeo and Juliet and Orpheus and Eurydice ; into an eloquent tale of tragic love and a fully theatrical exorcism of the hurts of history, as directed by actor Jani Lauzon, who played the character White Girl in the original 1991 production, directs it for the first time at Soulpepper in October. "I had the great pleasure of acting in the world premiere of Almighty Voice and His Wife and fell in love with the play then," Lauzon explained. "A few years ago I realized that it was one of the shows I really want to direct. Daniel David Moses has written an extraordinary play -- it's a love story, it's so beautiful, it's got historical knowledge and he's rolled it into a very moving piece of theatre."

And also joining the line-up are partner presentations Welcome to My Underworld (May 8-25) with the RARE Theatre Company presenting nine new Canadian short dramas and Deaf Cultural Centre's signed musical The Black Drum (June 15-19) about A young woman's life is turned upside down when her tattoos come alive and propel her on a fantastical journey in search of her inner voice.

***

Tickets now on sale. For more information, call 416-866-8666 or soulpepper.ca.

EDITION #216 - WEEK OF MARCH 18-24, 2019

Fantastic Moon voyage

Farideh Lashai's animated projection project Catching the Moon on display at the Aga Khan Musuem's lunar-based exhibit The Moon: A Voyage through Time

The Moon: A Voyage through Time

Venue: Aga Khan Museum, 77 Wynford Drive

Dates/Times: Through August 18; Tuesdays-Sundays 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Wednesdays until 8 p.m.)

Admission/Information: $20 Adults, $15 Seniors, $12 Students (14-17/full-time post-secondary with I.D.), $10 Child (6-13); Call 416-646-4677 or agakhanmuseum.org

Gallery Review

And He has subjected for you the night and day and the sun and the moon, and the stars are subjected by His command. Indeed, in that are signs for a people who reason.

- Qur'an 16:12

As long as life on this world has looked skyward, the only companion we have on our journey in the cosmos has been the moon. While we have written poetry, composed songs and created artworks about it for eons, out of the dozens of moons in our solar system that have been named, ours oddly remains nameless (Think about it: Saturn has a Titan, Mars has a Phobos and we call ours...just simply "Moon"). And yet, since we achieved mechanized flight, it is the only extraterrestrial body we have ever visited.

In marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo lunar landing, the Aga Khan Museum explores our natural satellite through the arts from the Muslim world for The Moon: A Voyage through Time , an expansive, interactive and its most ambitious exhibit to date in how it has shaped Middle Eastern culture, science, language, politics and religion as part of the museum's mandate to provide a better understanding of Islam.

From its entrance alone it provides an exclusive that probably one can actually experience once in a lifetime -- an actual piece of the moon itself. A meteorite labelled "NWA 3163," a loaner from the Royal Ontario Museum; that impacted on the moon millions of years ago is on display in a floor mound casing that you can walk on so you can honestly say you've stood on the moon is a fascinating aspect of the exhibit.

From ancient brass astrolabes to find Mecca and 18th-century portable raznama (almanac) scrolls of Islamic and Christian calendars from the Ottoman Empire to mosque crescent finials from pre-1984 Macedonia and contemporary art pieces from Iran, you can easily see how bountiful the displays are presented in a balanced measure of the moon's social and cultural hold and how it continues to do so.

Going with the obvious basics, a plaster cast shown of Egyptian Queen Ahmose of the 18th Dynasty New Kingdom explains that her name means "born of the moon" and during its pre-Islamic period the crescent moon has appeared in its artwork representing women, fertility and the mother of gods; the illuminated Folio of Falnama (Book of Omens) from late 16th-century CE India of ink, gold and watercolours on digital picture boxes courtesy of Oxford's Bodlein Library describing the Prophet Mohammed's mi'raj (ascension to heaven) while prophesizing that he'll split the moon again come Judgement Day to an Iranian steel chopping knife from the 1900s etched with lines from the Persian poet Sa'di's Gulistan (Rose Garden) mentioning the moon.

Left-right: A detail of Iranian sculptor Shahour Pouyan's moon rocket; a 'alam from India and a iftar (Ramadan meal) painting (centre-background ) from Iran and Luke Jerram's eerily-realistic work "The Moon" in the lunar-based exhibit The Moon: A Voyage through Time.

Moving toward the modern works, there is the moonlit "36 Views of the Moon" by photographer Ala Ebtekar having that minimalist approach of the moon using cyanotype exposure for the individually-framed photos and again with the colourful "Coelestis (After Hafiz)" done in 23-karat gold, ink and watercolours based on Hafiz poetry; Iranian sculptor Shahour Pouyan's untitled warlike metal works based on ancient Persian battle armour and chain mail looking quite ethereal and realistically lethal, yet is assembled to look like a moon rocket; the surrealist science-fictional digital collages of Syrian artist Ayham Jabr ("Euphoria of the Seventh Heaven" and "The Guardian of Life") and the two-minute animated Catching the Moon is a East-West amalgamation from late Iranian artist Farideh Lashai about a rabbit chasing the moon projected onto a water tablet's surface, based on Sufi poems and Beethoven's immortal "Moonlight Sonata, Opus 27, Number 2" holds its whimsical charm.

The exhibit's most-talked about attraction belongs to British artist Luke Jerram's commissioned "The Moon," a five-metre internally-lit reproduction of the heavenly object made out of nylon and ink-print imagery courtesy of NASA feels so incredibly real that the museum has made it part of its permanent collection hovering between the first and second floor foyers.

And for kids and the creative types, there are plenty of hands-on activities onsite from moon phase chart sheets, a magnetic poetry board and an old-fashioned workable typewriter to make on-spot poetry and colour pencils for lunar-themed works to either take home or put on temporary display. Fun, informative and educational, The Moon is a worthwhile trip to the Aga Khan Museum and a whole lot closer than the actual thing's 364,400-kilometre distance from us.

Operas, orchids and Ohno form arts fest line-up

Left-right: The Australian art maze "House of Mirrors" and Canadian playwright Susanna Fournier's concluding The Empire trilogy instalment Four Sisters make their way to this June's Luminato Festival.

Luminato 2019 Preview

With another new Luminato Festival comes a new Artistic Director replacing Josephine Ridge after a two successful and acclaimed seasons with the multidisciplinary arts festival and new mandate as they prepare to bring in 165 Canadian and international artists stating seven world premieres, two North American premieres, five original commissioned works and 88 performances in fourteen venues in free and ticketed events this June 7th to 23rd; ranging from a Columbian dance company paying tribute to two legendary artists from differing disciplines to a soulful West Indian opera taking stage.

"Last year's Luminato was one of the most widely praised in recent years," said festival CEO Anthony Sargent, "and 2019 builds on many of 2018's popular successes -- a large-scale participatory event showcasing Toronto's own talent, wide-ranging celebration of some of Canada's most distinctive creative voices, promoted internationally by Illuminating works, a strong vein of Indigenous culture, and works that hold up a mirror to today's fractured world, expanded through Illuminating Ideas. All of these are programming strands that we will develop in future years, alongside our signature commitment to bringing some of today's most exciting international artists to Canada. I join our Artistic Director Naomi Campbell in welcoming Torontonians and visiting guests to another Luminato festival packed with discovery and adventure."

"Luminato is proud to present a rich offering of art, ideas and opinions, reflecting the concerns and inspirations of many different voices from around the world; the festival features explosive, inspirational work from Toronto, alongside work by our international colleagues," said new Artistic Director Naomi Campbell. "There is much to explore, from simple good times and transcendent experiences of rich beauty, to complicated conversations about important ideas. We are nothing without our stories and the artists represented in this festival have found new ways to tell them, affecting us and the society where we live and work. I'm so grateful to my predecessor Josephine Ridge for laying the ground work for this incredible line-up of amazing artists, and hope that you will enjoy Luminato 2019 as much as I know I will."

Thirty years after his untimely death, photography icon Robert Mapplethorpe gets a spotlight at Luminato with the visual concert Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) at Sony Centre for the Performing Arts (1 Front Street East) on June 22 that explores his uncanny ability to make his viewers question their commonly held beliefs on race, gender, sexuality and politics with large-scale projections of some of Mapplethorpe's famously edgy photographs, with original music by Bryce Dessner of Grammy-winning rock band The National, poetry by Patti Smith, Korde Arrington Tuttle and Essex Hemphill and the voices of the Grammy-winning choral ensemble Roomful of Teeth.

Monday Nights (June 6-16), an interactive basketball clinic/theatre hybrid devised, performed and staged by five men, who during the summer of 2008 came together on the basketball court at Queen's Quay and Bathurst every Monday night; at a found space at 291 Lake Shore Boulevard East, as the production highlights how a simple game can help us understand ourselves and connect us to community; BIZIINDAN! (June 14) performs at Koerner Hall (273 Bloor Street West), a concert tribute for pioneering First Nations singer/songwriter, filmmaker and activist Willie Dunn featuring some of Canada's most well-respected Indigenous artists and activists Juno Award-winning band Digging Roots, Polaris Music Prize-winners Jeremy Dutcher and Lido Pimienta, singer/songwriter Marie Gaudet, award-winning legendary artist Pura Fe and hosted by ShoShona Kish, which will conclude with a screening of Canada's first music video, the 1968 NFB short The Battle of Crowfoot that was created by Dunn himself.

A scene from Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools from Canadian theatrical duo Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Evalyn Parry.

The Full Light of Day (June 7-13) tells the story of aging wealthy matriarch Mary reflecting upon how her family fortune was built upon through dubious means that her conscience can no longer endure at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front Street East) through theatre and film from award-winning artists Daniel Brooks and Kim Collier; Moscow's Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre brings the Shakespearean tragi-farce Masquerade for two dates (June 9-10) at the John W.H. Bassett Theatre (255 Front Street West) based on the 19th-century Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov morality play about the masks we wear that led to serious consequences and Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools (June 12-16) is the brainchild of Inuk artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and LGBTQ theatre-maker Evalyn Parry examining our country's colonial history, power structures and climate change in the North through folk songs, Inuit throat-singing, storytelling, uajeerneq (Greenlandic mask dancing), historical and autobiographical material at Canadian Stage's Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street).

The final instalment of the critically-acclaimed The Empire trilogy about injustice, provocation and feminine rage, Four Sisters (June 11-15) comes to The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West). Written and directed by Susanna Fournier with choreography by Amanda Acorn, it chronicles the life of Sarah, a 279-year-old former madam who had previously defied death, toppled regimes and outlasted centuries of war, now faces mortality when she's forced into quarantine with her four young wards after a mysterious plague breaks out and is faced with a difficult choice that could have life-ending consequences; noted playwright Tomson Highway's back with a new collaborative cabaret production, The Cave (June 18-23) at the Distillery District's Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Tank House Lane), an intimate, entertaining and urgent response to climate change as told by a group of forest animals fleeing from a deadly fire to the safety of The Cave. As they wait for the fire to subside, tensions grow inside their sanctuary and the animals become keenly aware of how centuries of human activity have led to this moment and to the obliteration of their homes (the June 22 performance of The Cave will also be live-streamed).

A scene from Flowers for Kazuo Ohno (and Leonard Cohen), from Colombia's La Compania Cuerpo de Indias, melds the iconic works of Leonard Cohen and Japanese butoh dancer Kazao Ohno.

One of Colombia's best contemporary dance companies, La Compania Cuerpo de Indias, sets some of Leonard Cohen's greatest and most transformative work and illustrated with choreography inspired by the poignant movements of legendary Japanese butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno for the dance production Flowers for Kazuo Ohno (and Leonard Cohen) descending on the Bluma Appel Theatre with four performances only (June 19-22); Chinese choreographer Yang Liping makes her North American debut in a ambitious reinterpretation of the ballet classic Rite of Spring (June 20-22). Set to the Igor Stravinsky score of the same name with an additional original composition inspired by traditional Tibetan music, Liping's choreography breathes new life into the iconic masterwork using ancient Tibetan and Chinese symbols and rituals to illustrate themes of incantation, sacrifice and reincarnation with a limited engagement at MacMillan Theatre (80 Queen's Park) and Canada's favourite puppeteer Ronnie Burkett comes back with the highly-anticipated world premiere commission of Forget Me Not (June 5-23) at the Joey & Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre (227 Front Street East), where audiences will be transported to "The New Now" where written words are forbidden and the underground movement of hand-drawn letters is considered a powerful act of defiance, along with his one hundred hand-crafted puppets made especially for this production; as a provocative call-to-arms for hope, the enduring power of love and the written word.

Harbourfront Centre returns as a venue site in hosting the majority of the fest's events, visual arts and film features, beginning with the Canada-Guinea dance production KIRA, The Path/La Voie (June 6-9) at the Fleck Dance Theatre (207 Queen's Quay West) by Canada's Lua Shayenne Dance Company and choreographed by Fara Tolno, one of Africa's most influential artists, as dancers invoke Mother Nature's wisdom and echo an auspicious warning of the invisible cord that links us all together; neo-operas Hell's Fury: The Hollywood Songbook (June 19-23) at Harbourfront Centre Theatre (231 Queen's Quay West) about the troubled life and times of Academy Award-nominated composer Hanns Eisler as a casualty of World War II and the Cold War and the Afro-Caribbean spiritual Obeah Opera (June 13-22) at Fleck Dance Theatre.

Moving into the visual arts, The Artport Gallery (235 Queen's Quay West) will host The Drawing Room, a free visual arts exhibition of large-scale renderings and sculptures created by Nathaniel Donnett, Lesley Loksi Chan, Shelley Niro, Robert Pruitt and Syrus Marcus Ware, loosely based on Ware's theme on the victims of police brutality that was a cornerstone roundtable discussion at last year's Luminato, along with the North American debut of House of Mirrors (June 7-23), the kaleidoscopic maze by Australian duo Christian Wagstaff and Keith Courtney at Exhibition Common (235 Queen's Quay West).

In music, Maada'ookii Songlines braids together the songs, styles and cultures of 200 diverse voices from eight choirs, four soloists and an ensemble of Indigenous performers from across Toronto in this free outdoor massive choral event begins lakeside at Harbourfront Centre June 23, which culminates an original composition by Juno-nominated singer/songwriter cris derksen; while the cinematic portion at the Studio Theatre will screen the local sports doc True North: Inside the Rise of Toronto Basketball (June 15), Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (June 21) and Angry Inuk (June 16), Alethea Arnaquq-Baril's protest manifesto defending the traditional Inuit seal hunts and Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four (June 22) directed by Deborah S. Esquenazi, that looks into the case of four Latina lesbians that, despite lacking any solid evidence, were charged and wrongfully imprisoned for sexually assaulting two young girls back in the 1990s and the filmmaker's dogged research regarding homophobia, witch mythology, racism and some new evidence that may yet prove their innocence; which all will include free panel discussions following each screening.

***

Tickets now on sale. For more information, call 416-368-4849 or luminato.com.

EDITION #216 - WEEK OF MARCH 11-17, 2019

A most promising superheroine franchise is born

Captain Marvel (Marvel Studios/Walt Disney)

Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law

Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Producer: Kevin Feige

Screenplay: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet; story by Nicole Perlman, Meg LeFauve, Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet; based on the characters from the Marvel Comics book series by Gene Colan, Roy Thomas and Stan Lee

Film Review

It wouldn't be the first time Marvel Studios took a gamble in dusting off and introduce a unfamiliar superhero title outside their more popular line-ups by bringing in Captain Marvel to their audiences (check out Guardians of The Galaxy and Doctor Strange). While this would mark their first-ever superheroine solo project from the MCU roster, the film fully stands tall among its cinematic contemporaries.

In 1995 Los Angeles, a younger SHIELD Agent Nick Fury (Jackson) and his partner Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) investigate a crash landing on a Blockbuster Video store involving a mysterious woman called Vers (Larson) who arrived on Planet C-53 -- a.k.a. Earth -- quite by accident.

Explaining that she's a metaphysically-enhanced elite warrior from the distant Kree Federation homeworld of Hala, which is controlled by an organic entity known as the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening); engaged in a search-and-destroy mission upon the shape-shifting alien race the Skrulls who commit acts of terrorism on their society under rebel leader Talos (Mendelsohn), she awaits for her team under the command of her mentor Yon-Rogg (Law) to arrive to finish the job.

However, Vers strangely recalls vague memories of having a life here as one Carol Danvers (also Larson), a top-gun USAF pilot who supposedly died in a top-secret experimental plane crash six years prior to her arrival. To prevent turning Earth into a unintended intergalactic battlefield, she and Fury forge a temporary alliance by heading down to Louisiana to find Danvers' best friend and fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and possibly piece together of who she really is.

If Marvel is guilty of making a so-called "feminist" superhero film much to the chagrin of previous online sexist troll chatter, it's definitely their coolest female-driven superhero film to date loaded with action, humour, '90s nostalgia, Top Gun references and smarts aplenty to win over any doubters, as wife-husband co-writers/filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Mississippi Grind; Sugar) put a personal, stylish touch that's different from previous MCU films yet encouraging, even if its only true flaw is being a little too fast-paced for itself.

Lawson handles her titular heroine well enough to be a likeable kick-ass, but if given enough time -- and possible future films -- she will easily fill out the character rightly. Jackson's latest Fury incarnation is his most laidback and funniest since he debuted in Iron Man 2 (and the digital de-aging makeover doesn't hurt, either); Mendelsohn rightly plays the enigmatic but level-headed Skrull antagonist and Lynch, Bening and Law seem to be having a lot of fun doing their bit roles.

A film that tackles the themes on identity, self-worth and destiny, as well as provides a tiny tease on the forthcoming Avengers: Endgame ; Captain Marvel is a welcome addition to the MCU family that holds a lot of promise in cameos and instalments. And you'll definitely love the unpredictable feline Goose who will melt fans' hearts as it does tough-guy Fury's.

Dissident artist Ai mirrors society with ceramics

Ai Weiwei: Unbroken

Venue: Gardiner Museum, 111 Queen's Park Circle; 2nd and 3rd Floors

Dates/Times: Through June 9; Mondays-Thursdays 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Fridays 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Weekends/Holiday Mondays 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Admission/Information: General $15, Seniors $11, Student (with I.D.) $9, Youth/Children (under 18) FREE; Half-priced Friday evenings (4-9 p.m.). Call 416-586-8080 or gardinermuseum.com

Gallery Review

"To express yourself needs a reason, but expressing yourself is the reason."

- Ai Weiwei

Renown Chinese multimedia artist-activist Ai Weiwei is no stranger to Toronto, having had appeared in a Luminato art performance via Skype with Laurie Anderson and a retrospective several years ago at the Art Gallery of Ontario, but Unbroken is his first ceramics-centric touring exhibit at the Gardiner Museum of new and previous artworks that is smaller and simpler, but never tears away from his cultural and socio-politic leanings still iconoclastic and reverent as ever.

From the infamous 1995 photo triptych of him purposely dropping a Han Dynasty vase with the Neolithic urn with the Coca-Cola logo about the announcement of property over political and cultural identity greeting you in the third floor section, his other classics 1994's "Tang Dynasty Courtesan in a Bottle" of a ceramic Tang era (618-907 CE) figure in a Absolut vodka bottle on the rampant materialism that duly reflect his country's adopted market-reform economy of the 1990s to a pile of "Sunflower Seeds" from the famous Tate Modern exhibit in London meant to express individualism disappearing in a massive numbers -- as well as unhanded labour practices -- aren't lost here.

Left-right:"Vases with Refugee Motif as a Pillar" and "Zodiac" in the background; "Tang Dynasty Courtesan in a Bottle" and "Tree" as part of the Ai Weiwei touring exhibit Unbroken at the Gardiner Museum.

The marble "Camera with Plinth" as the artist's retort about the Chinese authorities who placed him under house arrest over his constant protests against the government and the CCTV cameras aimed at his former studios in Jingdezhen (now living in exile in Germany) is a subtle play off of surveillance overkill in current society; the eleven-pieced "Oil Spills" is another message about environment concerns that look almost too real and 2017's "Vases with Refugee Motif as a Pillar" are stacked six vases high on the ongoing plight of the Mediterranean refugee crisis is very stark and realistic on the long and tragic history of human migration borne out of war.

Of course it's not all on reflecting on the world's troubles, as one particular instance with "Dust to Dust," with thirty jars of finely ground-up Neolithic pottery in a wooden cabinet that were already broken gives thought on the organic composition of clay returning to its natural state as it were. "Tree" is an actual tree reinforced by metal bolts on ancient Chinese symbolism between heaven and the underworld whose patterns can be found on traditional porcelain and he goes almost Warholian on his latest work, "Zodiac," of where the twelve Chinese Zodiac characters get remade with LEGO blocks based on long-destroyed bronze sculptures of Beijing's Old Summer Place and looted by French and British troops during the 1860 Opium Wars, sees the East-West connection of history and culture.

And don't pass by the second floor below afterwards with Ai's four new porcelain works near the Chinese Porcelain section with his more straight-ahead traditionalist "Blue and White Moonflask" and twin alabaster jars to smaller pieces "Opium Plate with Flower Motif" and "Free Speech Pendant Prototype" that are his most vibrant in the exhibit (next to "Zodiac") that give question to what could be considered a homage, a replica or just plain fakery. Fans of ceramic works and Ai will not be disappointed with Unbroken of a artist who refuses to be categorized into one medium nor will be dissuaded from pointing out the ills of his society and in general.

EDITION #215 - WEEK OF MARCH 4-10, 2019

Darkly brilliant Cohen ballet

Dance Me (Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal/Sony Centre)

Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, 1 Front Street East

Friday, March 1; 8 p.m.

Dance Review

Delving into the poetic universe of Leonard Cohen looms a dark and visceral interpretation of emotional feedback over the human condition, is enough by just drinking in his words and music alone.

Bringing Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal's take on his songbook with Dance Me in an encore presentation to the Sony Centre, they manage to honour the bohemian poet-musician courtesy of Andonis Foniadakis, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Ihsan Rustem's fluidic choreographic flow that makes this one primo production.

In mixing both his recorded songs and Cohen's readings throughout the 83-minute show, an initially-muffled becoming clearer reading of "Prayer of the Messiah" opens as a haunting interlude to the Latin-flavoured "Here It Is" in mostly lights and shadows for the ensemble; which becomes the mainstay of Dance Me demonstrated in Cedric Delorme-Bouchard and Simon Beetschen's lighting designs and the costuming of Phillipe Dubuc -- with the odd fedora floating about that became the singer's late-career trademark.

Eric Jean's dramaturgy and stage directions makes it all feel so alive to hear Cohen's smoky husk again echo in every turn to each performance; be it the bluntly stark spoken word take with "A Thousand Kisses Deep" whilst the cast walk about as a figure types it away in silhouette, the sensual duets found in "Suzanne," "Famous Blue Raincoat" and "Steer Your Way," a banquine act during the funk of "Boogie Street," the stylish, hard-edge pulse that flows out of "First We Take Manhattan" and "Everybody Knows" with a little martial arts involved to the more leggy, light-hearted humour in "Tower of Song."

Alex Dumais and Martin Leon do a more than good job in remixing Cohen's original recordings from interviews and spoken word voiceovers to give it a fresh, contemporary spin to them and for the dancers, yet they also allow a little personal touch with a couple of singers doing covers of "So Long, Marianne" and "Hallelujah" in showing how far reaching his continuing influence is.

While it best to note this is not some basic jukebox ballet one would read this, the dance troupe give a highly nuanced energy in every step taken here more of a artistic statement, as seen in some of their closing numbers "Nevermind" and Cohen's final recordings "It Seemed Better That Way" and "String Reprise/Treaty" as brilliant, dark afterthoughts.

Dance Me marks a another landmark production for the storied Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, as much as it does pay tribute to one of their city's favourite sons that seems to be a perfect match no Cohen fan should pass over.

The Wall encroaches towards Sony Centre

Two shows about influential Pink Floyd album The Wall coming to Sony Centre

Arts Preview

It's been over fourteen years since Pink Floyd played their final reunion performance at 2005's Live 8 and nearly seven years for what is considered to be their final studio album, the mixed-reviewed yet successful selling The Endless River (Parlophone/Columbia). But their mark on rock music remains boundless as so demonstrated with not just one, but two shows coming to the Sony Centre (1 Front Street East) based on the British progressive/psychedelic rock group over the next few months, centering mostly on their iconic 1979 concept album, The Wall.

First up is the Liverpool-based tribute band Brit Floyd, considered the world's greatest Pink Floyd show, returning to Toronto for a one-night performance on April 5 that will cover a special fortieth anniversary retrospective of The Wall, that spawned classic hits "Run Like Hell," "Comfortably Numb" and the band's only worldwide number-one single of their career "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2"; as well as material from other Floyd masterpieces The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), Animals (1977) and The Division Bell (1994).

Musical Director/guitarist/lead vocalist Damian Darlington performing with his highly-acclaimed Pink Floyd cover band, Brit Floyd.

Brit Floyd founder Damian Darlington, who was with the original Australian version of the group -- and is still touring today -- he that toured with for 17 years before striking out with his own version expresses his true fandom for the album and group since his teens. "I definitely listened to Pink Floyd. I remember "Another Brick in the Wall" being number one in the U.K.," he recalls. "It was December 1979. Probably my first memory of Pink Floyd. Then I actually heard The Wall album in its entirety and that's what particularly drew me to Pink Floyd about the age of twelve or thirteen. I was fascinated by the record that told a story, and all these sound effects linking songs together, and also the wonderful guitar work. I was already learning to play guitar and I wanted to learn to play some of these wonderful guitar solos. That was my introduction to Pink Floyd. I was a fan from quite an early age."

Then comes the ambitious award-winning Another Brick In The Wall: The Opera for five performances only (November 13-14, 16-17 and 23), as created by acclaimed Quebecois composer Julien Bilodeau and directed by visionary theatre director Dominic Champagne, that even got high praise from Floyd founder and original composer Roger Waters himself after he originally dismissed the idea as being "rather pompous" and feared it would turn his semi-autobiographical rock opera into a "unmitigated disaster." But after hearing Bilodeau's first draft compositions, he was so moved by them that he officially joined in as its librettist.

Its world premiere run in Montreal in 2017 was sold-out, drawing close to 29,000 spectators, which was a record attendance for the Opera de Montreal and its American premiere followed at the Cincinnati Opera back in last July, that was also the most successful presentation in the company's 98 years-history and drawing wide critical acclaim.

Adapted directly from the 1982 Alan Parker musical drama Pink Floyd - The Wall (which starred a young Bob Geldof that earned critical praise but tanked at the box office, yet has since garnered a cult status), the psychological operatic drama brings about feelings of insanity and insulation of the main character, the burnt-out rock god Pink and his manifestations that he calls The Wall, a symbolic representation of the difficulties of a whole generation confronted with the destruction of its dreams and the world and of himself. As he ages, Pink realizes that he has also consented to the events that made him who he is and his fall is a celebration of free will, libertarian optimism, of the hope for a break from a loss of common sense and lack of solidarity that he now struggles to free himself from.

Left-right: Original Another Brick in The Wall: The Opera ensemble Montreal conductor Alain Trudel, show director Dominic Champagne and opera composer Julien Bilodeau.

Yet don't expect to be a fully recognizable lyric-by-lyric interpretation of The Wall or its songs, as some critics and hardcore Floyd fans have derided as being unrecognizable. But Champagne defends the direction it has taken on doing something new rather than on working around the familiar. "It was the initial project...that neither Waters nor Bilodeau had any interest in making a pale operatic or symphonic copy of the works," he said. "The idea was not to do a Reader's Digest ofThe Wall, but to try to explore new avenues."

The director, who has had experience in reinterpreting rock classics like he did with Cirque du Soleil's LOVE, their Beatles residency show in Las Vegas that continues to run strong thirteen years since its debut; also believes that more flexible opera-goers and Floyd fans will appreciate in "recognizing the tunes and being able to get lost [in it]".

"There are purists [out there]...who were waiting for us with a brick and a lantern, who would know how it should be done, an opera of this nature," Champagne continued. "We obviously expected there would be a musical shock in the audience, because we're so used to hearing The Wall [in its original context]. It only has the effect of being lost." And besides, as he puts it, "It does not happen often in a career that you can sit down with Roger Waters to show him his new baby."

***

Tickets for both shows are now on sale. For information, call 1-855-872-7669 or sonycentre.ca, britfloyd.com (Brit Floyd) or anotherbrickopera.com/en (Another Brick In the Wall Opera).

EDITION #214 - WEEK OF FEBRUARY 25-MARCH 3, 2019

Viet Mom ticklish and touching

Good Morning, Viet Mom (Cahoots Theatre/Soaring Skies Collective)

Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas Street East

Tuesday, February 19; 8 p.m.

Theatre Review

Second City TourCo alumnus and local stand-up comic Franco Nguyen puts on a stunning one-man production with his autobiographical seriocomedy Good Morning, Viet Mom on the immigrant experience in a frankly compelling manner that shows some raw emotion and unguarded issues that still scars him, yet is willing to channel the negativity into the universal language of laughter quite effectively.

Nguyen mainly centers the play around his mother who wanted to follow her dream of being a fashion designer -- or fashion person, in Vietnamese slang -- as a teenager from her little rural village to Saigon (present-day Ho Chi Minh City) just as the civil war was about to engage into its second act with the Americans, until the city's Liberation/Fall in 1976 sent her packing in the influx of boat people who ended up in Canada.

Falling in-between his parents' bitter divorce, his resentments on being a translator for his English-challenged mother and a semi-absentee father become bones of contention of being a Winnipeg-born, Torontonian-transplant of Vietnamese refugees on his bouts with intolerance in multicultural Canada, the ugly facets of stereotypes and on reclaiming his heritage as something to be proud of, as well as satirize it.

Director Byron Abalos allows Nguyen to have a free-flowing, call-and-response pace for Viet Mom as a bit of a natural fit for the hour-long play and his comedic talents, while moments of drama seeps in from the basic constant generational/cultural clashes to sobering realizations of seeing his ancestral home as a nation of cemeteries from its brutal Indochina wars from the last century and differential regional disparity in its postwar recovery, from his personal observations and home videos taken.

Add this to the minimalist stage design of Christine Urquhart and David DeGrow's lighting in order to focus on Nguyen himself, this multimedia melange of mime, stand-up and histrionics, Good Morning, Viet Mom dispenses a lot of strengths involved of carrying certain personal burdens of trying to make living in Canada bearable in sometimes unbearably trying conditions that is about life itself and when to find common ground with family.

***

Good Morning, Viet Mom continues through to Sunday (March 3). For tickets and information, call 416-531-1402 or cahoots.ca/goodmorning

Babyface pro-wrestler Rocky wins over

Fighting with My Family (Universal/Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer)

Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Nick Frost, Lena Headey

Director: Stephen Merchant

Producers: Kevin Misher and Michael J. Luisi

Screenplay: Stephen Merchant; based on the Channel 4 documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family

Film Review

Whatever you want to say about the pro-wrestling industry as some big, dumb and glossified form of sports entertainment, Fighting with My Family , that got a decent reception at this year Sundance Festival; is based on the true-life British WWE wrestler Saraya "Paige" Bevis, is about as grounded and connectable a biographical sports comedy can get working around the Rocky formula without getting too formulaic about it.

Coming from a family of blue-collar professional wrestlers from Norwich, Saraya (Pugh) and her elder brother Zak (Lowden) get the long, long-awaited audition call from WWE at London's O2 stadium for a chance in 2014 to get on the roster as the ultimate dream since they were kids. However, Saraya gets picked to go to Florida, much to the dashed hopes for Zak to make it despite him being as equally talented as her.

Under the guidance of tough training coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn) in Orlando and going under the stage name Paige, she undergoes many baptisms of fire from being the exotic misfit with semi-goth looks compared to the glamour girls also vying to be in the WWE, not to mention homesickness, insecurities and the burden of great expectations of her family back home from her dad's (Frost) dreams to Zak's pent-up jealousy and resentments.

Writer/director Stephen Merchant, better known for working with the current Brit comic triumvirate of Ricky Gervais, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg; carves a proper fish-out-of-water story out of the world of "soap opera in spandex" with a roughen edge and comedy that doesn't come too often through its script and Remi Adefarasin's cinematography delicately balancing the filtered greys of small town England with American arena rock pageantry just fine.

Pugh plays the ballsy working-class heroine with a vulnerable center, thus carrying the film brilliantly throughout; Lowden as the sibling forced to shelve his dreams projects his frustrations quite effectively, but it's Frost who unabashedly chews up every scene he's in as the ex-con-turned-wrestler and family man hilariously, as well as Vaughn's bit role as a tough but comical coach in one of his more better roles. And Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson nicely carving himself a couple of self-parodying cameos (plus executive producer title) in here adds a little frosting on the cake.

Yes, it has that predictable triumphant underdog ending but at least Fighting With my Family is probably one of this year's cinematic guilty pleasures one can easily feel comfortable watching and come out fully entertained.

Animated Dragon trilogy goes out on a roar

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (Universal/DreamWorks)

Voice Talents: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett

Director: Dean DeBlois

Producers: Bonnie Arnold and Brad Lewis

Screenplay: Dean DeBlois; based on the Cressida Cowell book series

Film Review

Very few film trilogies can go out with a bang and DreamWorks' fantasy-adventure franchise How to Train Your Dragon with the third and final instalment The Hidden World wraps it all up -- almost a decade in the making -- in its themes about change and letting go that its fans can do so with great satisfaction.

Picking up one year after the events of 2014's second film, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Baruchel) and his Night Fury dragon Toothless along with their friends go raiding on dragon trappers and liberating them to live in their village of Berk. However, the dragon sanctuary-utopia is now bursting at the seams with too many residing among humans that the young Viking chief must find a new place that can be found in the legendary haven known as The Hidden World where they can live in peace.

Tired of getting raided on a near-nightly basis, the trappers hire Grimmel the Grisly (Abraham), a ruthless and cunning dragon hunter that uses their white female Fury dragon as bait to capture Toothless and put an end to the Berkians' campaign. As love slowly blossoms between the two Furies, Hiccup gets challenged by Grimmel with his own drugged trio of dragons and the hunters' armada in exchange for Toothless, which forces him to flee their home and reassess his leadership abilities that his sweetheart Astrid Hofferson (Ferrera) and mother Valka (Blanchett) can help him understand.

The only fault to this otherwise substantial addition to the Dragon franchise is that the film often gets too breakneck-fast for its own good during the action sequences at times that it's almost impossible to catch. However, the well-structured plot as written by the series director Dean DeBlois and more than impressive animation does help this shortcoming loaded with enough thrills and humour as the previous films have performed, as much as the character development of the major characters have grown.

Baruchel's decent handling of the character development of Hiccup from gangly teen to full maturity is one of the strong mainstays of the series, as afflicted with doubts and insecurities are believable; including Ferrera as his second-in-command and confidante that makes them a ideal couple. Abrahams plays out a half-decent villain, yet is enjoyable to hiss at and while Blanchett returns as Hiccup's mom in some more extended scenes, although she somewhat feels slightly underused this time compared to last.

Another mainstay of the film is the tightened relationship between Hiccup and Toothless that goes beyond being some "a boy and his dragon" trope is touching and yet bittersweet in How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World that gives it its gravitas that filmgoers of all ages will endear to.

EDITION #213 - WEEK OF FEBRUARY 11-17, 2019

A grand Hotel

Hotel (Cirque Eloize/Sony Centre)

Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Performing Arts, 27 Front Street East

Wednesday, February 6; 7:30 p.m.

Theatre Review

The Quebecois neo-circus Cirque Eloize's latest creation at the St. Lawrence Centre, Hotel, explores a quirky macrocosmic universe of the hotel filled with a lot of splendour, humour and energy which returns the fun level than their previous (and much darker) predecessor Cirkopolis that was here a couple of years back.

Mostly centering within the confines of a generically posh hotel like a cross between a grandiose lobby and hotel bar, as so brilliantly designed by Francis Farley-Lemieux and lighting fixtures from Mathieu Poirier; its cast are an assortment of eclectic characters (and one loyal dog named Carpette) ranging from the famous, obscure and infamous that come and go about with their lives, desires and destinations within a dream-like state.

The 90-minute show runs under creator-director Emmanuel Guillaume's workable gambit of free will and slapstick comedy in Lucien Berneche's all nicely-done costuming and careful choreography by Julie Lachance. Its best moments come from the introductory hand-to-hand buffoonery of two old friends (Julius Bitterling and Cesar Mispelon) and opening Charivari; a spectacular Hula Hoop ensemble piece; Philippe Dupris' juggling solos; a bellhop (Cory Marsh) doing double duty as a dance floor DJ and Cyr Wheel artisan and a nervous-nelly of a maitre d'hotel (Antonin Wicky) whose acrobatic antics could almost match silent film great Harold Lloyd.

But the standouts here belong to its vocalist/ukulele player Sabrina Halde's sultry vocals singing along to Eloi Painchaud's electro-swing soundtrack that give it its zip and nostalgic overtones to such tunes as "Bedtime Story," "Grand Hotel" and "I Gave My All;" and the versatility of Tuedon Ariri on aerial straps, hula hoops and contortion is a real talent onstage as a paparazzi-chased celebrity who seeks solitude from fame, even if it's for a little while.

This cocktail of music, variety, circus arts and clowning around -- and you'll thrill over Jeremy Vitupier's slack-wire act, the best I've seen in a good while -- does captivate audiences without fail towards the end of Hotel 's world that easily can be a reflection of ourselves untoward of that central station of life and the lives (we wish) we could occupy.

***

Hotel continues through Saturday (February 16). For tickets and information, call 1-855-985-2787 or sonycentre.ca.

Back on Boogie (Front) Street

Ballets Jazz de Montreal returns with Dance Me, their Leonard Cohen salute to Sony Centre in March

Dance Preview

"I've often said if I knew where the good songs came from, I'd go there more often."

– Leonard Cohen, 2016

Leonard Cohen is hotter than ever two years after his death, with his posthumous Grammy Award win on his 2016 final album You Want It Darker (Columbia/Sony), his last book of poetry The Flame (McClelland & Stewart) came out last fall won rave reviews and plans for a posthumous album of unfinished songs is in the works. But coming out with a dance tribute to him was a risky one at best back in 2017, given that his passing was still fresh and raw in most minds at the time, let alone that his most celebrated legacy that spanned over five decades could be so well honoured.

Ballets Jazz de Montreal, a venerated dance troupe on its own accord; pulled it off with the successful production Dance Me virtually sold-out everywhere it went on its initial tour, including Toronto; that it makes its comeback with two shows at the Sony Centre (1 Front Street East) coming March 1 and 2.

A long-time major force on the Montreal cultural scene, Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal (BJM) remains one of the most prolific dance companies in North America, as founded back in 1972 by the late dancers Genevieve Salbaing and Eva Von Genscy and surviving member Eddy Toussaint -- and since 1998 under the guidance of Louis Robitaille when he took over the reins as Artistic Director of the company when it got resurrected after a brief hiatus -- they have presented more than 2,500 performances in 67 countries all over the world, reaching a total audience of more than 2.8 million.

Dance Me features fifteen songs selected from Cohen's vast catalogue to which BJM has exclusive dance rights to under a five-year contract; the songs and movements underpin his recurring and universal themes of love, spirituality, poetry, society, artificial paradise, inspiration, creativity and the quest for freedom.

The idea for the ballet came by a chance call from the organizers for Montreal's 375th anniversary in 2017 to BJM's Robitaille and wondered if they had anything they'd like to present for the occasion. "They wanted an integral evening, not a typical Ballets Jazz mixed program," Robitaille recalled. "The music of Leonard Cohen came into my mind immediately as the perfect vehicle. Although he was deeply rooted in Montreal, he has touched so many people around the world, young and old, as much today as ever."

Managing to get in contact with Cohen's manager, the infamously reclusive singer-songwriter made it clear that he didn't want Dance Me to be his life story or some gaudy greatest-hits jukebox ballet, to which Robitaille never envisioned such ideas. "[So] he gave us his blessing," says Robitaille. It was a great gift."

After sifting through thirty selected songs and ending up with the said fifteen for the 83-minute ballet, which includes chestnuts "First We Take Manhattan" and "I'm Your Man" to lesser-known tunes like "String Reprise of Treaty" from You Want it Darker ; renowned choreographers Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Andonis Foniadakis and Ihsan Rustem were brought in to bring their own unique yet complementary touches to the show's five different sections as the work unfolds, their movements create a powerful and profound choreographic world that aptly reflects Cohen's artistic legacy.

"There are so many layers to his songs," said Foniadakis, who listened to Cohen as a teenager back on his native Greek island of Crete. "I'm trying to illuminate layers that perhaps are not immediately evident, embodying his music but not in a literal or decorative way. Ultimately, it's each choreographer's personal point of view but, always, it's about going beyond the steps to something deeper."

"Cohen was a poet," concurred the British-born choreographer Rustem. "The words are the backbone of his songs, but they can be enigmatic and elusive in meaning, and people interpret them in different ways. For me, the challenge was to find my own voice within that while always trying to respect his vision."

***

Tickets now on sale. For more information, call 1-855-872-7669 or sonycentre.ca.

T.O. shout-outs dominate Animated Shorts collection

2019 Oscars Shorts: Animation (Shorts TV)

Various directors

TIFF Lightbox, 350 King Street West

Film Reviews

The annual Oscars Shorts: Animation anthology is back again at TIFF Lightbox for a limited engagement at various times until the Academy Awards get broadcasted on February 24 and this time around, three Canadian entries (with two of them giving big shout-outs to Toronto) might get a chance to take home the coveted prize in a otherwise pretty good line-up.

Pixar's Bao -- that ran alongside this summer's blockbuster hit Incredibles 2 , also nominated for Best Animated Feature -- from Scarborough native Domee Shi's fantasy-com is a sweet and funny tome of a Chinese-Canadian mother experiencing empty nest syndrome (a lot of remnants of Toronto are very well on display here) until a dumpling comes alive that she undergoes the childrearing all over again, with the same results as before. An automatic charmer, the short expresses a lot about heritage and home as it is about learning to let go when children grow up.

From Ireland comes the dementia story Late Afternoon , seen through the eyes of Emily (Fionnulla Flanagan) where she tries to grasp what is left of her memory and a life fully lived in lovely impressionistic animation sequences and flashbacks as directed by Louise Bagnall is tenderly awash with emotion that probably won't leave any dry eyes about.

NFB husband-and-wife team Alison Snowden and David Fine, who nabbed a 1995 Oscar for Bob's Birthday that later spawned its short-lived 1990s TV series Bob and Margaret (remember that one?); return with the semi-dark humorous Animal Behaviour. Shown at last year's TIFF Short Cuts programme, it revolves around a group therapy session involving animals that has a gorilla with anger management issues joining in and spirals into absolute hilarity about overcoming basic instinct and the demons that haunts us.

Former Pixar animator Trevor Jimenez's hand-painted melodrama Weekends is loosely based on his own experiences shuttling between his divorced parents' places back in 1980s Toronto (again!) and the post-marriage relationships that he cannot yet comprehend leaves a lot of nuances and contemplation in its darken tone, especially when it falls into stark dream sequences that get intense at times.

The US-China project One Small Step from Taiko Studios takes on a Pixar-esque retro mould about Luna Chu, a young Chinese-American who dreams of going to the stars and her shoemaker single dad who encourages her all the way through flights of fancy, despite the frustrations she comes when she enters university to become an astrophysicist. Directors Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas drives this film with a bittersweet core about perseverance and imagination against the odds, as well as healthily promote the notion of women going into science.

Short-listers Wishing Box teaches a funny lesson about the consequences of greed when pirate and his monkey comes across a magic treasure chest that pops up anything the owner desires delightfully done by Wenli Zhang and Nan Li; and from Russia comes Tweet Tweet , a rather solemn but playful relationship story by Zhanna Bekmambetova between a bird and a young lady as they go though life together from infancy through World War II into old age as seen from the bird's point-of-view has its moments, if very little on substance.

This is a hard category to chose over who will win, inasmuch as it is over who'll take the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (more on that just shortly). As much as I'd love to see One Small Step or even Animal Behaviour win, it'll probably go to Bao as Pixar shorts have a long history of getting the award. But since Shi's a local talent and a fellow Canadian, that wouldn't be too bad either way.

And also showing at Lightbox are Oscars Shorts: Live Action and Oscars Shorts: Documentary, where the former category contains the highly-controversial Detainment in its line-up, as Irish director Vincent Lambe fully recreates the interrogation of the two ten-year old British boys who were behind the senseless 1993 abduction and murder of three-year old James Bulger that shocked England and the world. Didn't review this film (yet saw the trailer, it's riviting stuff), but be forewarned for those who might want to see it as the material is noted to be quite disturbing.

***

Also showing this Thursday (February 14) is the special one-night only TIFF Next Wave screening of Best Animated Feature nominee, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, with a exclusive Skype interview/Q&A with actor Jake Johnson, the voice behind Peter B. Parker/Spider-Man with local film critic Radheyan Simonpillai at 7 p.m.. For tickets and information, phone 416-599-8433 or visit tiff.net/oscars (Oscars Shorts) or tiff.net (Spider-Verse).

EDITION #212 - WEEK OF FEBRUARY 4-10, 2019

Ailey troupe still vibrantly visionary at 60

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater/Sony Centre)

Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, 1 Front Street East

Friday, February 1; 8 p.m.

Dance Review

Almost thirty years after his untimely end, contemporary dance icon Alvin Ailey's vision continues to live with the company he established over six decades ago for their works to be just as stunning and innovative to stand alongside their classic repertoire as surely demonstrated with their current anniversary tour that rolled into the Sony Centre for a recent two-day stand that would make their founder very proud.

Opening with their electrifying tribute to the late 1970s-early '80s New York club scene, "Stack Up" still feels uniquely fresh as it did at its 1982 debut while retaining its old-school coolness courtesy of the late Talley Beatty's choreography and colourfully retro costuming of Carol Vollet Kingston under Chenault Spence's lighting to the urban modernist backdrop of Romare Bearden's Under the Bridge. This 30-minute wonderland unfolds its spell (including a disco mirrorball, of course) as the ensemble gets to boogie down to the music of Earth, Wind and Fire and early hip-hop Fearless Four tune "Rockin' It" to the mid-way plaintive romantic saxophone of Grover Washington Jr.'s "Aubrey" that earned its two curtain calls at the end of it.

Two relatively newer works as inspired by two giants of jazz followed with "Members Don't Get Weary," a 2017 commission from choreographer and costumer designer Jamar Roberts weaves a commentary on the African-American experience and struggle of denim-wearing sharecroppers dancing to the melodic strands of John Coltrane's "Dear Lord" and "Ole" as being its artiest piece of their mixed programme brimming with emotion.

2016's "Ella" happened to be the evening's brilliant highlight (next to its closer "Revelations") as being a sweet, short but very sassy duo created by its Artistic Director Robert Battle back in 2008 and performed by Michael Francis McBride and Daniel Harder to Ella Fitzgerald's 1952 ditty "Airmail Special," in a mixture of rhythm acrobatics and jazz dance going along to her improvisational scat flow and fun-as-hell humour nailed in five minutes. Already an instant classic and crowd-pleaser.

No Ailey show is ever complete without doing his best-known gospel ballet masterpiece "Revelations," as the intensely orange-bathed ensemble sways to the haunting a cappella harmonies arranged by Hall Johnson's "I Been 'Buked" and again with "Fix Me, Jesus" that automatically takes the audience's soul as experiencing Ailey's tightly religious upbringing in the American South.

By the time you're immersed into the baptismal second part, one can't truly be helped to be swept away to the hymns of the trio piece "Wade In the Water" as a celebration of spiritualism to the solo piece, "I Wanna Be Ready" as performed by Clifton Brown, that anticipates the afterlife while fearing he is unworthy of such a reward. Into its final act starting with three lost souls looking for salvation to "Sinner Man" against a fiery backdrop to concluding to the highly rocking, hand-clapping "Rocka My Soul in The Bosom of Abraham," the company dances to flowing Sunday best dresses and sharp suits, as redesigned by Barbara Forbes.

Always a pleasure to see what the U.S. Congress back over a decade ago designated them as "a vital American cultural ambassador to the world," the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company outdoes itself again in proving that after sixty years of entertaining their countrymen and the world as true craftspeople to their dynamic artistry and passion onstage.

Perky musical keeps childhood innocence's last ember alight

Rose (Soulpepper Theatre)

Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane

Wednesday, January 30; 7:30 p.m.

Theatre Review

Looking to challenge themselves after their Americana smash hit musical Spoon River, the theatrical team of Mike Ross and Sarah Wilson tackle a children's book The World Is Round written by literary giant Gertrude Stein back in 1939 as the basis for their latest offering,Rose, that comes off pretty strong in song and performance.

Narrated in part by the guitar-playing Frank the Logger (Frank Cox-O'Connell), he tells about a small town called Somewhere and the quiet, slightly precocious resident called Rose (Hailey Gillis) looking to find the question to her own identity, as all nine year-old children do straddled between childhood and adolescence; which has emotionally stunted her so much to the point that she cannot even publicly mention her own name without breaking down.

As the classroom misfit, she has her next-door neighbour and best friend Willie (Peter Fernandes) and loyal dog named Love (Jonathan Ellul) to help her find out that elusive answer Rose believes can be found atop of the highest mountain overlooking their town -- and an assorted lot of personalities and misadventures along the way -- can she find her place in the world that she can feel comfortable with herself.

Three years in the making, the buoyant family-friendly musical certainly has an wonderous appeal to it, as it does entertain; about those obvious questions to figure out life and the world in general bursting with boundless energy and gentle humour while taking a few creative liberties; including a few decent tunes in the process (folksy-pop "Let Love Out," "Dear Mountain," disco-infused "Get Up, Then Get Up," "A Name Means a Lot" and the ensemble piece "A Great Day Somewhere" stand out here).

Director Gregory Prest guides the cast and material on a balanced input the two-and-a-half hour journey of self-discovery that's a wonder to witness, along with the 1970-ish stage set, lighting and projection designs by Lorenzo Savoini and Monica Dottor's choreography. Gillis as the eponymous heroine totally shines in inhabiting the part with a sense of perspective, humour, inquisitiveness and charm; Fernandes provides some comic relief in his role as best bud and the remaining cast meritoriously hold their own in multiple roles, but it's Alana Bridgewater who almost snatches it away as the Lion Lady and her theme song "Wild" coming off like some reverent Motown revue.

Rose comes off a sweet-smelling successor to Ross and Wilson's runaway Spoon River in bottling up the last ember of childhood innocence and keeping it alight in their careful adaptation of Stein's little-known publication that's bound to become another respected and worthwhile addition to Soulpepper Theatre and the Canadian musical theatre repertoire.

***

Rose continues through February 24. For tickets and information, call 416-866-8666 or soulpepper.ca.

EDITION #211 - WEEK OF JANUARY 28-FEBRUARY 3, 2019

Bjork-like Slow Dance, semi-cohesive This Shape

Slow Dance/This Shape, We Are In (Toronto Dance Theatre)

Winchester Street Theatre, 80 Winchester Street

Friday, January 25; 7 p.m. (Slow Dance) and 8 p.m. (This Shape, We Are In)

Dance Review

Now entering its sixth decade, the Toronto Dance Theatre continues to bend the rules on what is considered contemporary dance and for their double bill winter programme, Slow Dance/This Shape, We Are In ; is a mixed bag of what works and what doesn't, yet at least the company is not afraid to try new frontiers.

For the first time in three decades, the company uses their downstairs Studio B as a performance space for Slow Dance , as meticulously choreographed by Marie Lambin-Gagnon that looks more of a conceptual performance art piece than it is a dance production. Like a collection of found objects, and gauzy and metallic fabric with a space-age electronica score composed by Asa Sexton-Greenberg that are on par to a Bjork music video, dancers Yuchiro Inoue, Peter Kelly, Devon Snell and Margarita Soria move in the least minimum of movements as figures who eventually emerge from their "cocoon" statuses and dissemble their landscape in slow-motion tumbles and twists of (near-) collisions.

In the forty-five minute run time, the disintegration of their environs tries to match the celebration of the intimacy and strength in all things before succumbing to its end. It takes a lot of patience to perform in this manner, so for Slow Dance its avant-gardism works in its favour.

The same can't be said for the 90-minute This Shape, We Are In as performed in their expansive Main Space unfortunately, as it tries to enact on the themes of communication that are semi-cohesive from the unpredictability coming from the seven-person ensemble in skit-like series and snippets of postmodernist spoken word. While it does well in some parts, it feels a bit aimless about inter-connectivity, or lack thereof, as a whole from its director/choreographer Janine Durning despite being physically comical and unpredictable in its pacing.

While you can try seeing both productions, Slow Dance seems to be the strongest one of two for all for its eccentric, free-for-all structures they take on for audiences into more challenging dance forms that are a boon to the local scene, but its more of a take your own risk for the latter.

***

Slow Dance/This Shape, We Are In continues through to Saturday (February 2). For tickets and information, call 416-967-1365 or tdt.org.

A lighter Light Festival

The Day-Glo paintings of Madison van Rijn and uber5000 are part of this year's Toronto Light Festival at the Distillery District.

Toronto Light Festival 2019

Venues: Between Parliament and Cherry Streets, Distillery Historic District and Fairmount Royal York Hotel, 100 Front Street West

Dates/Times: Through March 3; Sunday-Wednesday Sundown-10 p.m. and Thursday-Saturday Sundown-11 p.m. (Distillery District) and 24/7 (Fairmount Royal York Hotel).

Admission/Information: FREE. Visit torontolightfest.com.

Arts Feature

For its third year running, the Distillery District's annual Toronto Light Festival takes a more toned-down approach and concept than they've had in the first two years of their presentation of previous and new works from light sculpture artists from here and abroad that still has its charm worth seeing. And this year, they've come up with a sizeable heating station for those really chilly nights!

Inspired by Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, the local-based Young Offenders x Electric Perfume's "Tunnelception" of LED bands activated by viewer movement within the tunnel-like structure that looks as fun as it is and nearby are some Reese's representatives offer free samples of a new brand of Reese's Pieces (noteworthy for those with nut allergies).

Two other Canadian talents, artist Craig Small and jazz-pop star Michael Buble, join forces for the acrylic-panelled "Michael Buble's (Heart) Edge Lit Heart" that turns a multitude of colours that's nice and sparkly-looking when it lights up sporadically, but next to it is the more impressive "The Phoenix Rainbow" by the Phoenix Rainbow Team with five hundred RBG LED lights is delightfully whirly upon viewing with its constant change.

From Russia -- via its debut at Burning Man 2018 -- comes Sofiya Batsova's "Error 101" is a glittery, guessable Mobius-strip wooden structure wrapped up as a statement about human-technology relationships and its continuous flow does has its own enigma of beauty and mystery; while American artist Don Kennell presents the festival's highlight in the center of the District with "Long View," a 10.6-metre (35-foot) polar bear made out of car hoods that dubs as projection screen of looping nature scenes addressing both environmental and conservational concerns both of the species and global warming trends quite effectively.

"Juladi" from Germany's Elke Radtke consists of screen manipulation like a divisional Rorschach-blot pattern is another fun viewer-participatory project that can involve one or many, as well as "Strange Attractor" from the U.S., a human-sized cylinder of spectrum LEDs as hand-rotated at different speeds and flashing that is just as dizzying to watch, let alone participate as created by Crispell Wagner.

Left-right: Taylor Dean Harrison's "Enunciation" seen inside and outside along the Distillery District's Tank House Lane.

Other pieces worth noting are "Enunciation," a stainless steel/LED/acrylic igloo-type structure generating multiple colours through generated movements is kind of cool in itself by Taylor Dean Harrison; Canadian group The Local Collective's "Centre of The Universe" is short and to the point about the relativity of time and location depending on your point of view may seem egotistical at first but you'll catch onto its theme; the eye-catching phosphorescent glows from Madison van Rijn and uber5000's undersea murals on steel cargo crates and the giant Disco Ball makes its own dazzling magic.

The only (rare) disappointment for this year is the acrobatic "Double Helix I" as fashioned by former U.S. particle laser scientist Dr. George R. Neil as a glowing DNA structure as made rhythmically movable by hand pulleys seems to run into a lot of technical difficulties in being operational. I've only seen it work only once, and when it does it's something to behold, but hopefully this will be fixed sometime over the festival run. And be sure not to miss out on noted Torontonian artist Peter Rowe's installations at the frontal windows of the Fairmount Royal York Hotel across from Union Station with his multimedia riffs on pop culture ("Cover the World," "Neon Cave Art") with neon, acrylic paint and sculpture of bring the familiar to a new level.

EDITION #210 - WEEK OF JANUARY 21-27, 2019

Shyamalan's shattering comic-book parlour game

Glass (Universal)

Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson

Writer/Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Producers: M. Night Shyamalan, Marc Bienstock, Jason Blum and Ashwin Rajan

Film Review

M. Night Shyamalan resurrected his cult-favoured Unbreakable film series through the unexpected and surprising 2017 smash hit Split that introduced the world to a brand new supervillian to the saga. In bringing the so-called Eastrail 177 Trilogy to a close with the equally powerful instalment,Glass, once again deconstructs -- and reconstructs -- the superhero film as the first one did.

Picking up shortly after the events of Split, David Dunn (Willis), the hero from Unbreakable ; runs his own security supply store and continues to go about his crusade protecting the helpless in Philadelphia as the superhuman vigilante the Overseer with the help of his now-nearly adult son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) in hunting down the serial abductor Kevin Wendell Crumb (McAvoy), known by his multi-personality The Horde.

Managing to find and rescue The Horde's latest victims, he and Crumb are arrested by the police during a confrontation and are taken to the Raven Hill Memorial Mental Hospital to be evaluated by psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Paulson), in the hopes of trying to convince the two that they don't really have any superpowers.

In a strange twist of fate, they're placed in the same hospital as Elijah "Mr. Glass" Price (Jackson), jailed for his terrorist acts in the first film but now heavily sedated to prevent him from escaping, despite his Type I osteogenesis imperfecta disorder (or brittle bone disease). Also involved is Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), the survivor from the last film; who finds a strange connection with her former kidnapper that could hold the key in subduing Crumb's apex predator personality The Beast from being unleashed.

To say anything more would be way too many spoilers that makes Glass a pretty satisfactory climax with Shyamalan's acutely structured direction, script and pacing full of surprises and tie-ups mashed into this parlour game of superhero, thriller and psychological horror genres, along with Mike Giolakis' nadir cinematography and West Dylan Thordson's caliginous score.

Willis again plays the accidental superhero finding his destiny with a convincingly subdued world-weariness that makes him all the more vulnerable character; Jackson still commands a presence as the criminal mastermind central to this storyline and just as enigmatic and McAvoy is creepier than ever in portraying The Horde intensely as he did in Split. Paulson makes for an interesting chess piece to the line-up, as does Clark, Taylor-Joy and Charlayne Woodard as Elijah's mother all finely reprising their characters without being some third-wheel or cameos that would have plagued other films of this persuasion.

Fans of Shyamalan and the Eastrail 177 Trilogy will not walk away from Glass disappointed, especially in its concluding scene; as being his best film in ages, as well as one of this year's top films for its complexity and reality-grounded foundations that makes this a thinking person's superhero franchise on par with those other excessively glitzy cinematic comic-book universes out there, if not more so.

Cirque Eloize offers lodging at Hotel

Quebec-based neo-circus troupe marks a quarter-century with their latest show

Theatre Preview

Considered the spiritual cousins to their mega-counterpart Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Eloize (meaning "heat lighting") invites Toronto audiences to celebrate their milestone silver anniversary year in 2019 by crossing the lobby doors and discover the grandiose and poetic universe of the critically-acclaimed new production, Hotel, at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Performing Arts' Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front Street East) for a limited engagement from February 6 to 16.

"During the last twenty-five years, the entire world has been our place of creation, of experience and emotion and [the] hotels where we stayed were our second home," said the company's founder/president and creative director Jeannot Painchau. "This is what inspired us for creating our new show, Hotel, that will see light of day twenty-five years after the creation of Cirque Eloize."

Premiered just last August at the Foxwoods Resorts Casino in Ledyard, Connecticut, Hotel is the metaphor for a place and time for its transient travelers flitting between the past, present and future tense, where it acts as a stopover for lives that intersect briefly, just long enough for tales and memories to be forged. Through their sheer acrobatics, theatre, dance and live music guiding audiences through this intimate refuge; it is styled with an avant-garde scenography inspired by the elegance of only the greatest hotels.

From New York to Hong Kong, Cirque Eloize has taken part in numerous prestigious international festivals, won several awards and has logged more than 5,500 performances in over 550 cities and have been seen by over 3.5 million spectators worldwide. A familiar face in the Toronto area, they've won audiences here with previous productions Rain, iD and Cirkopolis in the past and more recently they've started their very first seasonal residency production, the family-oriented Nezha, the Pirate Child in Shawinigan, Quebec and another production Seul Ensemble, a tribute to Quebecois progressive rock legend Serge Fiori, is scheduled to premiere in Montreal in March.

Hotel, which is the company's fifteenth production since 1993, is created and directed by Emmanuel Guillaume, whose sensitivity, poetry and comedy imprinted work fits well with Cirque Eloize's creative approach, along with musical director/composer Eloi Painchaud, choreographer Annie St-Pierre and costumes by Sarah Balleux adding to the avant-garde stage design by set/accessory designer Francis Farley-Lemieux, as inspired by the elegance of the great hotels of the world to carry the narrative.

***

Tickets now on sale. For more information, call 1-855-985-2787 or visit sonycentre.ca or cirqueeloize.com.

EDITION #209 - WEEK OF JANUARY 14-20, 2019

Clearly sounds like democracy

An Unsafe Space (Independent)

Tranzac Club, 292 Brunswick Avenue

Thursday, January 10; 7:30 p.m.

Theatre Review

Richard Klagsbrun's A Unsafe Space is about as incendiary a play about modern political correctness in addressing various issues on race, class and society to whether one's attempt to preach tolerance is just another way to self-service egos rather than for the common good in this comedy of ill manners does very well as a reflection of these most volatile times.

In the thin-walled townhouse of Joanna Whitney (Precious Chong), a Political Science assistant professor at an unnamed university, she gathers together faculty members and student representatives for an impromptu war council discussion in countering a proposal against accepting a sizeable donation from a right-wing think tank that they feel might influence their teachings upon their liberal beliefs and student body.

Amongst them are a rogues' gallery of her colleagues Lindy Little (Jane Spidell) and Patrick McConnell (John Jarvis) and student council members Jamal Mohammed (Chanakya Mukherjee) and Lisa Copper (Jenny Weisz), who all feel very strongly against the donation as a matter of principle on possible hidden agendas that may come attached to it.

When Joanna's new beau Oliver Waterman (Craig Lauzon), himself a Seneca First Nations attorney-at-law, becomes an unexpected guest on an already-planned date night with her on the situation, including a drop-in from a conservative board of directors member (Peter Millard) in favour of the grant; it becomes an deconstructive questioning on how really liberal they all previously thought they believed to be as the alcohol starts to loosen a few tongues about.

Klagsbrun's script and direction keeps the play as evenly-balanced over freedom of speech and censorship as it does over gender, racial and identity politics as it can while maintaining its scathingly hilarious banter and core message on how important it is to hear both sides of the argument even if one disagrees with it that'll open eyes and minds in the 90-minute, two-act play -- and it's not for the ultra-sensitive.

Lauzon basically carries the show with handling every point thrown at him and lobbies a few whip-smart jabs with logic, intelligence, humour and even temperament into his role (hell, I want this guy to be my lawyer); Chong interestingly acts as the evening's referee and peacemaker while trying to fight off the unrequited feelings from both the self-righteous and loathing lesbian Lindy and the pompously boorish Patrick, as neatly played by Spidell and Jarvis respectively.

Mukherjee and Weisz as pumped-up social activist students with blind allegiance to their youthful idealisms adds to the play's vigour, as well as Millard offering that sometimes conservatism can adjust to change than they are opposing progressiveness.

While Ken Deally's set design decor has a scaled-down mediocre 1970s look to it and Noah Feaver's lighting doesn't add much to improve or hide its blandness, but for the play's themes -- as much as it is a social experiment -- pretty much stings and bites the targets it aims for and makes clear on allowance on free thought and freewill in a democracy, as summed up by Oliver's advice in midst of the argument: "Cults tell you what to think. You should learn to think for yourself."

***

An Unsafe Space continues through January 20. For tickets and information, visit visit universe.com/anunsafespace or anunsafespaceplay.com

African-American dance troupe pirouettes at 60

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returns with classics and new works for Toronto audiences after a four-year absence this February

Dance Preview

Marking its sixtieth year in touring in 48 American states, seventy-one countries for 25 million people worldwide, the venerable Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater head on back to the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts (1 Front Street East) for three performances February 1-2 with some old standby from their extensive repertoire and new dance works making their Canadian premieres in store for their fans.

The company's 32 extraordinary dancers reveal the power, passion and astonishing beauty that have become contemporary dance hallmarks with the absolute must-see 1960 gospel masterpiece of Ailey's Revelations as the grand finale for all performances; including 1982's urbanized ode to old-school disco and hip-hop Stack Up, newbie Members Don't Get Weary from 2017 as "a response to the current social landscape in America, [the production] takes an abstract look into the notion of one 'having the blues,'" described by its choreographer Jamar Roberts to the music of John Coltrane and 2008's Ella , a comic high-energy duet tribute to Ella Fitzgerald from a live concert recording of "Air Mail Special" to be performed on February 1 and Lazarus on February 2 by hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris' 2018 look at Ailey's legacy and the racial inequalities that still divide the company's homeland six decades since its founding as its very first two-part ballet.

A scene from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Company's latest work,Lazarus, to play exclusively twice on February 2 at the Sony Centre.

Since its founding in 1958, the company has had countless acclaim for its continuing innovations in dance and dance theatre in addition to being the Principal Dance Company of New York City Center, where its performances have become a year-end tradition, they perform annually at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and various venues throughout the United States and the world during extensive yearly tours. The Ailey organization also includes Ailey II, a auxiliary performing company of emerging young dancers and choreographers formed in 1974; The Ailey School that one of the most extensive dance training programs in the world since 1969; their various education and outreach programs which brings dance into the classrooms, communities and lives of people of all ages and The Ailey Extension, a program set up in 2005 offering dance and fitness classes to the general public, which began with the opening of the troupe's permanent home -- the largest building dedicated to dance in New York City -- named The Joan Weill Center for Dance at 55th Street at 9th Avenue in New York City.

"Alvin Ailey was a pioneer in celebrating the human spirit through the African-American culture and modern dance, elevating the world of the performing arts and the hearts and minds of people of all backgrounds," said company Artistic Director Robert Battle. "It is a privilege to return to Toronto as we honour his storied legacy. We hope you will join us to be uplifted during our 'Ailey Ascending' 60th anniversary performances at the Sony Centre!"

***

Tickets are now on sale. For more information, call 1-855-985-2787 or sonycentre.ca

EDITION #208 - WEEK OF JANUARY 7-13, 2019

Taking up An Unsafe space

Political commentator and satirist Richard Klagsbrun (featured) takes a stab at recent events concerning the encroachment of political correctness in academia as he debuts A Unsafe Space as playright and director.

The upcoming socio-political comedic play, An Unsafe Space, courts controversy over political correctness and freedom of speech

Theatre Preview

The problem with having some sort of progressive awareness on tolerance and the human conscience, is how far is too far in showing sensitivity or insensitivity to certain topics and individuals. In the current climate of 24/7 social media and its supposed anonymity for the trolls spewing vitriol and voices of opposition shouted down as so-called "fake news" to alt-right activists being picketed and/or banned at universities, An Unsafe Space targets them all in a new play premiering this week (January 10) for a limited engagement until January 20 at the Tranzac Club (292 Brunswick Avenue) with an internationally acclaimed cast of A-list Canadian stage stars from Royal Canadian Air Farce 's Craig Lauzon to veteran stage actor Jane Spidell participating.

Conceived by well-known local political strategist, Hollywood film executive (An Inconvenient Truth; Lincoln; Good Night, and Good Luck; Spotlight), opinion blogger and TV political commentator Richard Klagsbrun, who has been a keen observer and unabashed commentator of the evolving human and political condition; the drawing-room play has gotten some fair attention already after a reading at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre late last year to praise from Emmy- and Gemini-nominated producer/writer/creator of America's Funniest Home Videos Todd Thicke. And it's fair to say that the playwright is not happy about the current state of the world in where he sees it going.

"Everyone throughout history has lived in dangerous times in one way or another," says Klagsbrun, "and it's not like we're reliving the (1962) Cuban Nuclear Missile Crisis. But though we've progressed in our safety and equality, elements that are basic to freedom, like free speech and the right to openly discuss ideas that affect our lives, are under constant assault."

The play takes place at an impromptu gathering in a political scientist professor's home along with her colleagues, where the hostess introduces her new romantic interest, a First Nations lawyer; to the group whom for which she had a date with on the same night. As a social experiment, he joins in the meeting regarding on how they plan to counteract over a major conservative benefactor's donation to their university and a lot of opinions -- as well as prejudices and outlooks -- bubble to the surface with unexpected consequences.

It is entirely possible that people will be offended by certain parts of the play, Klagsbrun admits, considering the red-button topics that get bantered about in An Unsafe Place that were inspired by actual events at a major North American university. "However," he explains, "comedy and art are often about offending people, from Lenny Bruce to Elvis Presley to D.H. Lawrence." But, as he adds a little advice for the ultra-sensitive: "Be warned. If you're the sort of person who needs to check if there's a 'trigger warning' before you watch or read anything, this might not be the play for you."

***

An Unsafe Space previews this Wednesday (January 9) and starts this Thursday (January 10). For tickets and information, visit www.universe.com/anunsafespace or anunsafespaceplay.com.

Library mini-gallery goes down the rabbit hole

Alice Opens the Door

Venue: TD Gallery, Toronto Reference Library, 789 Yonge Street, Main Level

Dates/Times: Through January 27; Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-8:30 p.m., Saturdays 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sundays 1:30-5 p.m.

Admission/Information: FREE. Call 416-395-5577 or visit tpl.ca/tdgallery

Gallery Review

Even 154 years after it made its debut in print, after an Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson spun a tale on a Thames river trip one summer's day in 1862 and was encouraged by the protagonist's tween namesake to put it to print and three years later wrote it under the pen name Lewis Carroll; Alice's Adventures in Wonderland continues to find its way into the hearts and imaginations of all ages today. The Toronto Reference Library's kid-friendly Alice Opens the Door interactive exhibit explores this continuing pop culture reference and its many incarnations since.

Consisting of various items from the library's extensive Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books, it's an abundance of riches behind display cases and wall installations in the TD Gallery from simple mini-books, flipbooks, a few toys and multiple illustrations as interpreted throughout the years by various artists from Canadian artist/writer George A. Walker's woodblock engravings from a unique copy made in 1999 for the local Cheshire Cat Press (naturally) as part of an analytical talk by a lawyer in regard of the book's infamous Knave of Hearts trial entitled "Wouldn't It Be Murder?" for the Lewis Carroll Society of Canada.

Most surprising to find that a couple of well-known illustrators did versions of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland make their way here, like Ralph Steadman -- famous for illustrating Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and his other Rolling Stone articles -- and surrealist master Salvador Dali's watercolour-like illustrations for a 1969 book as the exhibit's rarity as it is nightmarishly stark and deep.

Other oddities shown are a 1937 British publication depicting Alice as a brunette in the guise of a young Princess (and future Queen) Elizabeth instead of the traditional blonde; a Greek-translated comic book; a series of British Royal Mail stamps commemorating Brit kid-lit from 1979 in marking the United Nations' International Year of the Child and a couple of shameless Christmastime adverts for Guinness in promoting the drink as a "health-enhancing beverage" (!) during the 1940s.

Some theatrical representations come in the form of costuming sketches belonging to Marie Day for the local Young People's Theatre 1968-69 production done in oil pastels, graphite pencils and fabric swatches and the fancy-looking Theatre Calgary's Alice On Stage by Michael Eagan in gouache watercolours, graphite pencils and adhered glitter on manila paper back in 1985.

Of course, the Disney-fied versions exists with a well-preserved copy of the record-picture book from the 1960s of the 1951 animated classic and the ethereal choral yet beautiful "Alice's Theme" from its soundtrack by Danny Elfman for Tim Burton's 2010 live-action hit piping through the gallery's sound system on a loop. Short and simplified, Alice Opens the Door provides a little insight in the literary masterpiece that keeps its charm intact.

***

The companion exhibit, Alice Adjacent: Lewis Carroll and his Victorian World,continues at the Lillian H. Smith branch (239 College Street West) through March 2. For information, call 416-393-7746 or torontopubliclibrary.ca/lillianhsmith.

EDITION #207 - WEEK OF DECEMBER 24-30, 2018

Respectful melodramatic mindscape

Welcome to Marwen (Universal/DreamWorks)

Cast: Steve Carell, Eiza Gonzalez, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Producers: Cherylanne Martin, Jack Rapke, Steve Starey and Robert Zemeckis

Screenplay: Caroline Thompson and Robert Zemeckis

Film Review

In his nearly forty-year filmmaking career, Robert Zemeckis has dabbled into technology to stretch out his silver screen canvas into nearly-impossible worlds that define convention as he does so again with his latest, Welcome to Marwen, a substantially deep fantasy-drama about one man's fantasia in order to deal with his mental state and to fight the inner and outer demons within through the power of art.

Photographic artist Mark Hogancamp (Carell) works and lives in upper state New York with a miniature play village he built in his front yard he's called Marwen, a fictionalized Belgian village set in World War II, as occupied by his flying ace action figure alter-ego Cap'n Hogan (also Carell) and a bevy of pistol-packing, stiletto-wearing dolls loosely modeled on the women in his life, mostly casual acquaintances to former loves; who constantly fight off hordes of Nazi German foot soldiers.

Back in 2000, the artist got into a vicious barroom brawl with a group of men -- one who sports a Nazi swastika tattoo -- that left him brain damaged to the point of him holing up in his home with only his work to keep him going through his action figures and village in ultra-violent play battles being his catharsis to cope with his PTSD, permanent memory loss, psychotic fits of crippling social anxiety and an antagonistic temptress named Deja Thoris (Kruger), whom he dubs as the Witch of Marwen; amidst a semi-lonely existence.

As the date of the sentencing for his attackers approaches three years later, Hogancamp has to find not only the courage to deliver a victim impact statement to the court, but also the face the world again that he finds with his lawyer (Conrad Coates), friends Caralala (Gonzalez) and Roberta (Merritt Wever) and that nice new neighbour Nicol (Mann) to help him slowly come out of his shell.

With some impressive mo-cap animation and live-action blurring the lines of reality in a series of flashbacks and wartime fantasies, Zemeckis returns to the type of film, as adapted on the real-life figure's story from the 2010 documentary Marwencol ; slightly reminiscent of his past classics Forrest Gump with a sense of genuine sensitivity -- and a little Back to The Future self-parody nod -- in addressing Hogancamp's daily struggles in his smartly co-written script with Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands ;The Nightmare Before Christmas), a good score from long-time Zemeckis collaborator Alan Silvestri and Jeremiah O'Driscoll's seamless editing.

Carell steadily extends his dramatic chops like he did in The Big Short in this fine dual role of the fragile Hogancamp and the heroic Cap'n Hogan (and managing to toss some puns about) as someone trying to rebuild his life after such a traumatic experience with a high degree of believability.

Mann neatly and tenderly plays the potential love interest, as Kruger's femme fatale offering him relief from his pains is a combo of funny camp villainy and a floating dangerous id, and the supportive roles of Wever, Gwendoline Christie, Janelle Monae, Leslie Zemeckis, Siobhan Williams, Stephanie von Pfeffen as the ladies of Marwen play their doubling roles with humour and toughness that almost steal the show whenever they appear.

It should be noted that despite the animated 3-D sequences that sort of reminds one of Joe Dante's 1998 cult science-fiction film Small Soldiers may look kid-friendly, it's pretty much an adult film due to the semi-graphic war violence and a tad doll "nudity," as it were. Yet Welcome to Marwen is much of a respectful melodramatic mindscape laden with a couple of laughs about mental disorder that doesn't come by too often.

A real wonder woman of the times

On the Basis of Sex (Universal/Focus Features)

Cast: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Cailee Spaeny, Justin Theroux

Director: Mimi Leder

Producers: Robert W. Colt and Jonathan King

Screenplay: Daniel Stiepleman

Film Review

Contemporary cinema, in the era of the post-Me Too Movement, has taken a dramatic turn in just a short while in having women stories being told by women directors that still have yet to achieve an equal balance with their male counterparts. One such story that now gets a chance is Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- the second woman to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court after Sandra Day O'Connor -- in the historical biopic On The Basis of Sex on challenging the status quo over gender is inspirational as it does entertains.

Opening in 1956 when Bader Ginsburg (Jones) enters her first year at Harvard Law School as being part of the scant minority of women in a sea of men who attended at that time, she also has to balance marriage with her highly supportive husband Marty, (Hammer) who's also studying law; and being a mother to a newborn.

She's barraged by a series of highly complicated life setbacks in a rigidly patriarchal world just prior to the seismic societal changes to come in the following decade, it's when she wants to transfer mid-way to Columbia Law when Marty suddenly falls ill to testicular cancer for better treatment in New York City, their determination to make it all of this work seems very challenging to heart and soul.

By the 1970s Bader Ginsberg is stuck to teaching gender law at Rutgers, since no New York law firm wanted to take her in just for the double whammy of being a woman and of the Jewish faith; she gets a chance to fight the sexist laws on both federal and state levels when she comes across a landmark reversal-sexual discrimination case in Colorado regarding Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), a bachelor caring for his elderly mother is hounded by the IRS for being a cheater over a tax credit he can't claim simply because he's a not a woman in the "traditional" caretaker role.

Undeterred by Mel Wulf (Theroux), a old ACLU pal; and her former Harvard Law dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), who's now the U.S. Attorney General; who both have sympathy for her and the case that they don't believe she can win, faces it head on with Marty, their teenaged activist daughter Jane (Spaeny) and veteran civil rights attorney and personal idol Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates) by her side to strike these laws down as being unconstitutional and unfair for all sexes.

On The Basis of Sex serves not only as a proper tribute to the woman who fought against gender inequality in America, it's also a comeback project of sorts for its director Mimi Leder, who has been slogging it through television over these last few years after directing 1990s box office hits The Peacekeeper and Deep Impact and 2000's Pay It Forward ; showing she hasn't lost her cinematic eye in working around complex stories and wordy dialogue as well-structured by first-time screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman.

Jones has this role all down to pat in the smarts, style, language and height (Bader Ginsburg, now at age 85 and herself a pop culture phenom, is rather petite) balanced with a moral conviction and a vulnerable side that makes her all the more human on some of the compromises she had -- and hadn't -- to make, that should earn her a Oscar nomination; as so should Spaeny as her equally-principled and headstrong daughter that gives her the reason why one has to fight the good fight. Bates shows a lot as the burnt-out Kenyon needing to resurrect her faith in the law, but it's a real surprise to see Hammer, better known for doing comedies; playing a honestly good dramatic role here for a change.

Providing as a debate on how the fabric of society can and make change for future generations that is as old as time itself, On The Basis of Sex is a more-than timely reminder us that these rights are a never-ending fight to achieve (and maintain) against entrenched systems and social thinking that are seemly impenetrable on the surface must eventually give way for the common good for all.

***

On The Basis of Sex goes into wide release in cinemas this Tuesday (December 25).

Indoor Snowfall not (snow)flaky

Studio Minus F: Snowfall

Venue: Brookfield Place, 181 Bay Street

Dates/Times: Through January 4; Mondays-Saturdays 6 a.m.-1:45 a.m., Sundays 9 a.m.-1:45 a.m.

Admission/Information: FREE. Call 416-777-6480 or visit brookfieldplacenewsandevents.com

Art Review

Whether we get a white Christmas or not this year the holiday art installation Snowfall returns to Brookfield Place -- after a four-year absence -- is not just confined to one but three places on their premises as created by the renowned Studio Minus F, the Canadian visual arts team of Mitchell F. Chan and Brad Hindson; with their innovative works that are minimal but to the point in invoking the one thing that symbolizes winter: the humble, tiny snowflake pattern.

Starting with its major centerpiece, the 6.9-metre tall "Frost" in the Allan Lambert Galleria corridor is pretty striking for its large size that states that it's interactive via touch by running one's hand along its LED panels, however it only lights up in one place alone by your hand and its doesn't leave that much of a "shadow" trail for very long as it claims. Still, it's a nice touch to the space that it occupies.

In the Bay-Wellington elevator lobbies are "Gust," a series of 60 medium-sized LED sculptural ceiling installations that encircle the area. Constantly changing into these really eye-catching Day-Glo colours, its best moment is when they all turn into this uniform golden shade that is said to do so at least every once a hour (if you're lucky enough). But when it does, it really is something to witness.

The third and final Snowfall piece "Flurry" can be found in the lower Concourse level -- a.k.a. the Food Court area -- where about 2,000 smaller laser-cut versions of the snowflake crystal pattern made of a prism-like material, changing colours as the viewer moves through the space as they suspend themselves throughout the 1,828.8 square-meter space only with a certain incandescent light shown in different places and in differing positions they all sparkle and change colour in the light fractions have that pretty effect.

While they all have the same pattern cut, the Snowfall series hold that old fact that "no two snowflakes are alike" that makes these work unique in their own way. And just like the real thing outside, this exhibit will also disappear right after the holiday season. Too bad it can't stay another week afterwards, but like any real Canadian will tell you even we get sick of looking at the stuff.

EDITION #206 - WEEK OF DECEMBER 17-23, 2018

Poppins sequel blissfully sweeps you away

Mary Poppins Returns (Walt Disney)

Cast: Emily Blunt, Emily Mortimer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw

Director: Rob Marshall

Producers: John DeLuca, Rob Marshall and Marc Platt

Screenplay: David Magee; screen story by David Magee, Rob Marshall and John DeLuca, based on the Mary Poppins stories by P.L. Travers

Film Review

For decades after its auspicious 1964 splash onto the big screen, Walt Disney Studios had always punted around the idea of doing a follow-up to their classic adaptation of Mary Poppins and in what form it would take. While it's taken them over 55 years to finally get it off the ground, Mary Poppins Returns makes for a more than worthy successor in a meld of new- and old-school in this musical fantasy that purely delights both young and old.

Taking place twenty years after the events of the first film, it's now Depression-era London with a older Michael Banks (Whishaw) occupying the Cherry Tree Lane house of his childhood with his own brood Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathaniel Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson), while his elder sister Jane (Mortimer) is a workers' rights activist with no time for a life.

But, like the era of its time, things aren't so rosy for Michael since his beloved wife passed on. Still grieving over her while struggling to make ends meet in raising the kids and now his late father's bank, now under the helm of William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth), nephew to the original bank manager Mr. Dawes Jr. (Dick Van Dyke); is out to foreclose on his mortgage within a week's time and in desperate need of a miracle.

Faster than you can even say "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!", their old magical nanny Mary Poppins (Blunt) literally blows back into their lives to help them out in taking care of the next generation of Banks and to rekindle their lost childlike sense of wonder and hope courtesy of a eclectic collection of acquaintances, from their golden-hearted lamplighter pal Jack (Miranda) to Mary's eccentric cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep).

The studio picked the right director, for what would seem like a daunting task for a journeyman filmmaker, in Rob Marshall (Chicago; Into the Woods) to bring all of this to life in all the right ways from its pace, texture, sound and feel that not only replicates the cinematic musical stock of yesteryear that he's so well versed in, as much as it pays respectable homage to the original that even Walt Disney himself would proudly beam.

Blunt is practically perfect in every way stepping into Julie Andrews' iconic role and totally makes it her own from her fastidious, prim and proper mannerisms of the character as it is fun to inhabit; Miranda steals about every scene that he's in song and dance (and his Brit accent's not too shabby, either); Firth plays it to the hilt as the heartless banker so ready to toss our heroes and heroines out into the cold and the cameos from Van Dyke (he's still light on his feet at 93), Streep (doing a deliciously dotty self-parody of her own talent with accents) and Angela Lansbury are just as stellar as its youngest cast members Davies, Saleh and Dawson earn their credit.

David Magee smartly cobbles together his ideas as well as Marshall's and producer John DeLuca into a cracking good script here, in particular to the totally sumptuous live-action/animated sequence done in traditional (yaaay!!!) 2-D animation that is the best ever made since Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. And, of course, the musical numbers as penned by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman -- with a little help from the original soundtrack songsmiths the Sherman Brothers -- with standout tunes "Can You Imagine That?" that makes bathtime so much fun, "The Royal Daulton Musical Hall," "A Cover Is Not The Book" (my personal favourite), "Nowhere To Go But Up" and the heart-rendering "A Place Where the Lost Things Go" are the film's brightest cornerstones.

Sure, it plucks on its own nostalgic strings when it does, but Mary Poppins Returns is a sentimental journey that blissfully sweeps you away with its infectious tunes, energetic and creative dance scenes (standout moment "Trip A Little Light Fantastic" is a knockout) and talented cast all in its lengthy two-and-a-half hour running time to be a brand new classic on its own terms. Highly recommended.

***

Mary Poppins Returns goes into wide release in cinemas this Wednesday (December 19).

Regally tangible and absorbing costume drama

Mary Queen of Scots (Universal/Focus Features)

Cast: Margot Robbie, Saoirse Ronan, David Tennant, Guy Pierce

Director: Josie Rourke

Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Debra Hayward

Screenplay: Beau Willimon; based on the book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy

Film Review

Most historians would contend that the rivalry between English Queen Elizabeth I and Scottish Queen Mary Stuart was the original catfight recorded between two monarchs over the control of the British Isles in the 16th century, as the costume drama Mary Queen of Scots dictates. However, director Josie Rourke unfolds a more complex and even sympathetic portrayal of the two powerful women that would change history.

Arriving at her Scottish home from France, newly-widowed young Mary Stuart (Ronan) returns to Edinburgh in 1561 to hopefully reclaim her position from her elder half-brother James, Earl of Moray (James McArdle), who had been caretaker king while she was in a political marriage to the French court as a teen.

Hearing that her cousin has come back, Elizabeth I (Robbie) knows that Mary could invoke her legal right to the British throne if she produces an heir, brings about a serious threat to her rule, not to mention the possibility of a religious war stirring between the two nations' Protestants and Catholics, to which Mary's a convert to the latter faith. Looking to placate her courtesans and ministers in Parliament, as well as stave off her own personal paranoia and jealousy; Elizabeth dispatches Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn) -- and her favoured lover -- to Scotland to get her to recognize her reign by seducing her, but Mary sees through the plot at hand that backfires.

Heartbroken by the whirlwind engagement, wedding and eventual pregnancy with Mary's second marriage to Henry Darnley, Duke of Albany (Jack Lowden), Elizabeth secretly arms a Protestant rebellion in the north under advice along with ally Protestant cleric John Knox (Tennant) already sowing the seeds of public discontent over Mary's reign, both lady monarchs find themselves at the mercies and mechanizations of each others' patriarchal pawn games that only one will prevail.

Rourke makes her cinematic directorial debut here, after building a distinguished theatrical career with England's National Theatre and on the West End and Broadway; and certainly knows how to steadily execute a period drama loaded with power grabs and palace intrigues as adapted from Cambridge University historian John Guy's award-winning 2004 biography, Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart , as screenwriter Beau Willimon (House of Cards) in trimming out the padded stuff to come up with a tangible, absorbing storyline that doesn't lag yet some of its drama is slightly muted in certain moments.

Both Robbie and Ronan play out their leading roles very smartly and accordingly about two women dangerously trying to navigate their ways around the hallways of power whilst looking to establish their sense of female empowerment among the "boys' club" that was a huge rarity in those days, goes a long ways here in performance. McArdle and Lowden act as liaisons torn between loyalty, family and their own eyes on the throne wrapped up with hostility with a gentlemanly demeanour and Tennant gratefully chews up a lot of scenery in his shortened role as the fiery cleric whenever he's giving a sermon the masses over her "weak" leadership skills (or, in modern terms, fake news).

Lots of sweeping panoramic vistas, darkly drenched cinematography by John Mathieson's and minute historical details (with a few speculations and dramatical exceptions) imbue Mary Queen of Scots that will also keep the history cinema buff happy and learned engaged in its two-and-a-half hour time run about power and ambition.

Breathtaking Corteo still works its wonders

Corteo (Cirque du Soleil)

Scotiabank Arena, 40 Bay Street

Wednesday, December 12; 7:30 p.m.

Theatre Review

Since they started to move into the arena format over a decade ago to reach a broader audience in areas that aren't in large cities, Cirque du Soleil's productions have either hit or missed their mark in recreating the same kind of magic encapsulated in their regular Grand Chapiteaus. Their 2005 classic, Corteo, happily falls into the former department in every way in their recent Toronto stopover -- its first in over twelve years -- albeit a few minor changes that is just as good.

Mauro the Dreamer Clown (Mauro Mozanni), a long-time circus performer, faces his mortality as his colleagues and friends gather around him to give him the send-off of send-offs as he contemplates between that dreamlike world between heaven and earth, of a life lived with wonder, humour, regret and curiosity of what lies beyond.

Death may not be the easiest of themes to grapple in theatre, but the Montreal-based neo-circus troupe sure pulls it off spectacularly from its opening aerial Chandeliers acrobatics of Mauro's former loves with a sexy elegance and grace; the Clowness' (Valentina Paylevanyan) Helium Dance that tenderly taunts in and above the crowd that still remains the show's highlight; a unsurpassed esoterical beauty behind Aurelie Deroux-Dauphin's Tissu act that has her singing and doing acrobatics all at once; the innocent fun of the Bouncing Bed trampoline act to the sultry Hula-Hoop act of Sante D'Amours Fortunato who seemingly defies all laws of physics with hoops and contortionism.

While the clown acts are always great fun from the ensemble member pieces of "Golf" with the Giant Clown (Victorino Lujan) trying to whack a rebellious golf ball and the slapstick madness of "Teatro Intimo" tries to do a production of Romeo and Juliet; it is Mozanni who carries -- and steals -- Corteo 's heart from his solos of meeting and dealing a multitude of angels who tease and beckon him (the puppetry Artists Marionette act is a charmer), that makes it Cirque's most clown-centric production ever.

As this world designed by creator/director Daniele Finzi Pasca is still his personal best what with the creative team to help him conjure it all up from Jean Rabisse's set designs and Martin LeBrecque's lighting works, the intricately gorgeous costumes by Dominique Lemieux, Cirque veteran Debra Brown's choreography and most of all, composers Jean-Francois Cote, Phillipe Leduc and Maria Bonzagino's delightful score (with some additional input from Pasca) of Old World classical, opera, medieval, jazz, samba and klezmer music ranks among one of the company's best soundtracks in its vast songbook.

Short-lived and sweet as its Toronto engagement was, Corteo still is a breathtaking wonder for its fans which manages to remain true to its original format (and while some of its retired acts are still missed, at least they kept in the rubber chickens in some capacity) to weave its spell on the audience that lingers on long, long after they take their final bow.

EDITION #205 - WEEK OF DECEMBER 10-16, 2018

Petty's Oz pantomime priceless

The Wizard of Oz -- A Toto-ly Twisted Family Musical! (Ross Petty Productions)

Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street

Thursday, December 6; 7 p.m.

Theatre Review

For their twenty-third year at the Elgin, Ross Petty's The Wizard of Oz -- A Toto-ly Twisted Family Musical! panto works back its magic, after last year's A Christmas Carol that was a noble experiment at some different; with their most tried and true formula of camp, social commentary and musical theatre that will charm all ages -- and finally (if not completely) finding its feet without its executive producer in the lead baddie role.

Millennial college grad and dog walker Dorothy (Camille Eanga-Selenge), along with her friends and contemporaries living in the Ossington area; finds herself in a rut over her dismal job prospects and outlook on life in general until a twister comes barrelling along and whisks her and her client's dog Toto (Olive) to the Land of Oz.

Discovering that she accidentally squashed the Wicked Witch of The East and unwittingly inherited her Ruby Tees, her sister Sulphura (Sara-Jeanne Hosie) -- a.k.a. The Wicked Witch of the West -- must have those shoes in order to power her smog-making machine that increases global warming not only for Oz, but for Earth as well.

Teaming up with the hapless Good Witch Sugarbum (Michael De Rose) to head to Emerald City to see the Wizard of Oz to help her get back home, Dorothy encounters the Scarecrow (Matt Nethersole), the Tin Man (Eric Craig) and the Cowardly Lion (Daniel Williston) along on their journey to find their own purpose in life, Sulphura stops at nothing to get those sparkly sneakers off her feet to carry out her nefarious plan.

Back in the director/choreographer seat for the seventeenth time, Tracey Flye's touch gets it all line from its flow and catchy song-and-dance numbers in making it all click from Cory Sincennes' glitzy set and eye-popping costume designs enough to make Dr. Suess jealous, the lighting designs of Kimberly Purtell and mostly from the humorously-packed dialogue as penned by Matt Murray replete with kid- and adult-aimed comedy loaded for bear.

The cast is well chosen for their capabilities in going along with the script and adlib of whatever comes Eanga-Selenge's way in voice and delivery, including a firm if friendly message about bullying; along with cohorts Olive, Nethersole, Craig and Williston in their parts. De Rose certainly seems to be having a good time as the panto's obligatory drag star Sugarbum, as does Hosie making a good comical villainess and Petty regular Eddie Glen in his multiple roles as the suffering lackey Randy, Mr. Green and the Wizard is always a treat (and check out the liveliness of Olive at the finale -- it's priceless).

With all its pop culture parodies, innuendo, classic/current pop cover standbys and some roasting of certain unpopular leaders of late, this Petty incarnation of The Wizard of Oz is a major improvement over the last one they did back in 2011 that was sort of mediocre. So it's great to have another chance to get it right again from this theatrical holiday tradition that keeps on giving, even at a two-and-a-half hour run that seems to go all too quickly.

***

The Wizard of Oz -- A Toto-ly Twisted Family Musical! continues through January 5. For tickets and information, call 1-855-599-9090 or visit rosspetty.com. Also, A Christmas Carol -- The Family Musical with a Scrooge Loose will broadcast on CBC Television December 16 at 6 p.m. EST and on Family Channel December 15 at 1 p.m. EST.

Radio Daze

Will Jazz FM find salvation from its recent crises or be relieved from Toronto's airwaves as a casualty of the Me Too Movement?

Arts Commentary

When community radio station CJRT-FM 91 switched to an all-jazz format to become Jazz FM back in 2001, it was the greatest thing to happen not only on the local and national level in regards to the jazz community since the CRTC relaxed content rules back in the 1980s, it was a long, long-answered prayer to jazz and blues listeners -- including myself -- who hungered to hear their music played on the radio. And it has greatly contributed to local and regional jazz festivals and set up community outreach programs from its own youth big band jazz orchestra, the popular annual Jazz Lives fundraising concert series to several scholarships, including a bid to the United Nations for Toronto to host their annual International Jazz Day celebrations, which earned them the praise and envy of surviving jazz radio stations worldwide to replicate their successful formula.

Nowadays, the award-winning public-supported radio station is in a state of crisis, or rather crises, that could have it seen itself off the air permanently following an allegation of workplace improprieties under its now-former CEO/president and veteran jazz broadcaster Ross Porter, financial difficulties and an internal power struggle that proves that the Torontonian and Canadian arts community is not immune from the ripple effect of the Me Too Movement.

It all started early in January when a group of then-current and former Jazz FM employees gathered in a series of secret meetings to mainly discuss their time and experience working at the station that had been run by Porter since 2004, in which "the station had become a toxic work environment" under him. Calling themselves the Jazz Collective or the Jazz.FM Collective, they sent a letter on March 16th to the station's board of directors listing a number of complaints, which included "being bullied, harassed and sexually harassed by Ross Porter." The letter also named the station's then-vice-president of finance and operations Sharda Prashad, described as a "personal confidant" to Porter; then-chair of the board Bernard Webber and then-vice-chair Renah Persofsky as complacent to that fact.

Among the twelve signatories of the letter included former morning host Garvia Bailey, who ran the Good Morning Toronto show from 2014 to last April, who stated in the spring of 2015, she was sexually harassed by an unnamed "major donor to the station" to whom Porter "had instructed female staff to be 'extra nice'" to. Also, in 2016, she said that a male listener once sent photos of his genitalia to her and despite having contacted the police on that matter, "[the station] did not implement or discuss any sexual harassment, harassment or bullying policy or procedures" with her.

Some of the Jazz Collective had stated that Porter regularly initiated sexually graphic conversations, engaged in unwanted touching and even made jokes suggesting that employees should sleep with the station's supporters. During meetings at which staff would pitch promotional or programming concepts, he would exhort them to come up with ideas that would "make me horny." They also alleged he would frequently reduce staff to tears, humiliate them in front of co-workers and berate announcers during commercial breaks. The group said that more than 40 employees "have either resigned abruptly under duress, been fired abruptly or have left their employment with the station because it was untenable" in the previous "5-plus years."

After receiving the letter, the station board hired a third independent investigator, employment lawyer Jennifer MacKenzie, to conduct an investigation and said that she had interviewed 30 people, including all those who signed the letter as well as full-time, contract and former employees who came forward voluntarily. In delivering the report to the board in April, the board's communique stated that "[T]he Investigation Report of Findings concluded that many of the complaints were unsubstantiated while others warranted further consideration and action. Where the findings substantiated aspects of the complaint, the board has taken corrective action." When the Collective asked to see the so-called MacKenzie report, the board promptly refused.

Then in late April, Bailey was called into a meeting with Persofsky, who told her the ratings for Good Morning Toronto were "in the dumps" under her and was given a new contract as the host of "an unspecified, unplanned and unbranded overnight pre-recorded radio show," a move which she alleges was a "reprisal for being part of the Jazz Collective and making the complaint."

She then argued that the change amounted to constructive dismissal and that the flagship morning show's ratings were in "an upward ratings trend." The station then back-pedaled on their offer and offered to reinstate her in the morning position, but only "subject to a performance management plan." Also learning that she would still be reporting to Persofsky, Bailey quietly left Jazz FM and had recently filed a C$420,000 wrongful dismissal suit against the station in August.

The lawsuit also spotlighted over the departure of Dani Elwell, another popular host as well as the station's vice-president of creative talent and program director of Good Morning Toronto, whose own late Sunday night show NIGHTLAB was cancelled back in September 2017 without any explanation to listeners, as well as left Jazz FM. She was told she had been deemed as being "toxic" after questioning some of the decisions of the station made by Prashad. According to one e-mail Elwell sent to a long-time listener to her show in regards to her absence, "Unfortunately this was not my choice. I wasn't allowed to say goodbye with the show."

While none of these allegations have yet been proven in a court of law, the changes made at Jazz FM were swift and silent. Upon Bailey's departure, their resident arts reporter and media director Mark Wigmore took over the morning slot and Porter took "a leave of absence" on May 30th in order to look after personal family matters regarding his wife's terminal brain cancer and youngest son's PDST incurred from three tours of duty in Afghanistan, then officially stepped down as CEO and president to be President Emeritus but allowed to continually host and broadcast his popular Saturday morning show, Music to Listen to Jazz By, now recorded from his home outside of Toronto.

Then, several employees including Wigmore and veteran personalities Jamyz Bee, David Basskin and Walter Venafro, whom the two latter made up the daytime hosts line-up; were let go in June as part of a "cost-cutting measure," much to the dismay of listeners and donors who were puzzled over this action, for the station had just undergone a successful spring on-air fundraising campaign after the fact.

And in adding insult to injury to its 143,000 daily listeners, the morning segment has now been reduced to a format relating to an online radio service of un-hosted music with traffic reports and BBC newscasts during the weekdays, as much as I admit I was never too crazy about some of their choices of morning hosts over the years since its first one Ralph Benmergui left; sounds so blandish.

Jazz FM, which relies on gifts and donations from listeners and supporters for more than half of its revenue under CRTC rules as a non-for-profit charity; had a budget of C$4.6-million in 2017, according to filings with the Canada Revenue Agency. But the station is facing an industry-wide decline in ad dollars that followed the Porter scandal and saw a budget shortfall of nearly $620,000 back in 2016, according to the CRA and they had used up reserve funds to cover the loss and further tax filings for 2017 showed a modest $30,000 surplus for the station. That's rather unusual, given that its 2.1-per-cent share of the Toronto audience is up more than 100 per cent from the same period a year earlier.

It's fair to say listeners and/or donors, here and online worldwide, are less than amused by recent events, as well as musicians who felt they've been used by the station.

Jazz FM 91, who once prided themselves as "Canada's premier jazz station" and championed its fellow musicians, as seen in this undated photo of local chanteuse June Barber; now looks to remedy their sullened reputation in the wake of Me Too Movement-like scandals earlier in the year.

This summer has been a heated one for Jazz FM, including Bailey's lawsuit and another one from former employee Glenn Knight, who worked at the station for almost six years, including most recently in a one-year program director stint that ended in August; as their annual general meeting on August 31 were frustrated to say the least from hearing from donors' complaints from how their money was being spent, on why Porter's show has not been cancelled in light of the allegations made of him and calls for the board to be dissolved and replaced (an bid was made from Marie Slaight, a donor, poet, author and director of an arts production company in Australia and daughter of Canadian billionaire Alan Slaight; to control the station, who has since rescinded her offer) in regards to the board's lack of transparency and vague hints that that station has been approached with business propositions to maintain it, according to interim CEO Charles Cutts.

In the AGM's aftermath, SaveJAZZFM, an effort led by disenchanted members to overhaul the board came into formation under founder Brian Hemming, now seeks a court injunction to have the station release the e-mails of approximately 2,200 donor-members, in the hopes that they can use the information to lobby for an overhaul of the board idea and based on its reading of the Ontario Corporations Act and the station's own bylaws, his group was entitled under the law to receive the membership information in order to save the station's financial and artistic future, to which the board is strongly resisting due to "privacy concerns."

One really has to ask themselves, what kind of hot mess has this turned into?

In regards to the Porter scandal, this wouldn't be the first time these allegations had been noted. As early as 2005, NOW Magazine reported the same kind of management issues at the station under his care, starting with local gospel-blues singer Tabby Johnson, who hosted a short-lived Sunday morning gospel program Step It Up in that year, decided to mention about the lack of visible minorities and women at Jazz FM at the time with operations manager and music director Brad Barker (who is still at the station) which she said "was greeted with outrage and anger" by him and later in a meeting with Porter in his office where according to her, the incident "escalated" to the point where, from her point of view, Porter was "fighting to control his temper."

And then another ex-Jazz FM host, Mary Lou Creechan, who ran their first Latin jazz program, Jazz With A Twist, said that she was reprimanded for "playing too much Latin music" when she was the only woman on air and on-air personality working without a contract then. Plus at the same time Johnson was fired, another long-time staffer and jazz vet Doug Watson was let go for unspecified reasons. (And in a real sense of irony, NOW Magazine rated Jazz FM as the city's Best Radio Station in their annual Readers' Choice Award polls in 2016 and 2017.)

Yet, the same question goes unanswered, why did nobody then paid attention to all of this? Did the jazz community, the media and its fans, including myself; were so dismissive and even, dare I say it, desperate to have a champion in our city that we didn't have the courage or fortitude to take care of this type of rot at Jazz FM when it still was just a tiny festering wound years ago? Look at it now.

No one wants to see this station to go off the air, I least of all. Jazz radio has, more or less, been an endangered species in the last thirty-odd years globally and the music does need a public format to promote and expand the genre in order for it to survive. As much as it pains me to say this, but it is time for Jazz FM's current board of directors to resign in order for new blood to take over, strip Porter of his position as President Emeritus and cancel Music to Listen to Jazz By. And as for that announcer trying to emulate Porter's warm gravelly tone at the end of the station's radio identification tag "Playing the best music in the world" lately? Please drop that, for that does sound kind of creepy now in the light of things.

If Soulpepper Theatre, another Toronto arts institution that had faced its own similar crisis earlier this year; could do this by purging former Artistic Director Albert Schultz from his position in the wake of four sexual harassment suits (that have since been settled), cancelled a couple of shows connected to him, appointed Weyni Mengesha as the new head honcho, establish transparent outreaches to their supporters and keep their reputation intact within these past few months, so can Jazz FM.

As for Ross Porter, these allegations can't be denied by him anymore with so much evidence and consensus built upon them. If he has any sense of salvaging what is left of his legacy, to which he has contributed so much to the Canadian and international jazz scene as a true aficionado of the genre (then again, so was Bill Cosby, but I digress), it is best he comes clean with himself and to those who got the brunt of his abuses. The time to exorcise old-school behaviour that is no longer tolerated has come in the post-Me Too era.

Jazz is a resilient art form that has been through much, much worse and will continue to thrive in one way or another. For the sake of the station, the music, the community and its fans, things must change for the better.

EDITION #204 - WEEK OF DECEMBER 3-9, 2018

Foreigner theatrically rocks out Jukebox Hero

The iconic British-American rock group debuts their own jukebox musical in Toronto this winter

Theatre Preview

Whether you love them, hate them or take them or leave them, the jukebox musical is pretty much the staple of musical theatre nowadays and Toronto has had their fair plethora of them over the years from ABBA's Mamma Mia! to So Beautiful -- The Carol King Musical (if you think there's too many, visit London's West End district -- it's literally the capital of jukebox musicals). And the city will have the honour of launching the world premiere of Jukebox Hero, The Musical based on the catalogue of the veteran rock group Foreigner, of an exclusive limited engagement at Ed Mirvish Theatre (244 Victoria Street) this February.

The musical originated in a conversation between Foreigner founder and lead guitarist Mick Jones and Motown legend Diana Ross during a chance meeting in an airport lounge back in the 1980s. Ross had planted the seed of the idea that his group's music belonged in a stage production. Now thirty-plus years later, the production got penned by the prolific writing duo of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, responsible for cinematic adaptations of Neil Jordan's The Commitments and Julie Taymor's Beatlesque Across the Universe to the seminal 1980s TV production The Tracey Ullman Show , that also inadvertently spawned the medium's longest-running animated series, The Simpsons. The rock musical will feature sixteen of the band's anthemic Top 30 hits including "Cold As Ice," "Feels Like The First Time," "Hot Blooded," "Waiting For A Girl Like You," "Urgent," "Head Games," "Say You Will," "Dirty White Boy," "Long, Long Way From Home," "I Want To Know What Love Is" and its title track from their 1981 album, 4 .

Described as a coming-of-age saga, the musical tells the story about the closing of rust-belt town of Blaydon, Pennsylvania's biggest factory. Confronted with the possibility of unemployment and instability the community calls upon Ryan, a native son who made good on becoming a rock megastar, for help. However, Ryan has some issues about leaving his hometown in the very first place, so he reluctantly confronts the ghosts of his past as well as a homestead he no longer recognises as his.

Having already turned out Juke Box Hero with warm receptions through several workshop productions in Calgary and Edmonton this past summer from the Calgary-based Annerin Theatricals company, the musical will have an all-Canadian cast that included Geordie Brown (Rent ; Stan Rogers: A Matter of Heart) Laura Tremblay (The Expanse ; Ben-Hur ; The Cocksure Lads) and Cleopatra Williams (Kinky Boots ; Jersey Boys ; We Will Rock You ; Wizard of Oz) to be directed by Tony-nominated playwright/director Randy Johnson (A Night With Janis Joplin) with musical direction by Mark Camilleri who did the recent Toronto engagement of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax ; oddly enough at the same time Foreigner kicks off the -- naturally tongue-in-cheekily entitled -- Cold As Ice winter tour in celebrating forty years on the road in eighteen cities across Canada with its current line-up.

Left-right: Bassist Jeff Pilson, guitarist/founding member Mick Jones, lead singer Kelly Hansen, keyboardist Mike Bluestein and rhythm guitarist/keyboardist/sax/flutist Tom Gimbel make up the current line-up of Foreigner since 2012.

Since the 1977 release of their first hit "Feels Like The First Time" and their self-titled debut album on Atlantic Records, the British-American band has been universally hailed as one of the world's most popular rock acts with ten multi-platinum albums, sixteen Top 30 hits and worldwide album sales exceeding 80 million. Foreigner also features strongly in every category in Billboard Magazine's Greatest of All Time listings, with catalogue sales often eclipsing those of Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Def Leppard, Van Halen, Aerosmith and most of their other classic rock peers. Still going strong after four decades, they recently cracked the Billboard Classic Album Charts for the first time with its latest release this spring, Foreigner With the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra & Chorus (earMUSIC/Edel AG), a live recording of their first-ever orchestral shows in Lucerne, Switzerland; and toured in headlined shows across the U.S., Europe, Australia and New Zealand this year, including sold-out appearances at London's Royal Albert Hall and the Sydney Opera House.

"I never could have imagined when I set out to create Foreigner more than forty years ago, that we'd still be touring around the world and performing the music we love," says founding (and last original remaining) member lead guitarist Mick Jones. "I had so many great times with Foreigner in Canada and I'm thrilled that now Canada will see the premiere of our brand new musical, Jukebox Hero, and that we'll bring our music across the country with the Cold As Ice tour."

***

Jukebox Hero, The Musical runs at Ed Mirvish Theatre February 20-24; tickets are now on sale, but are selling out fast as of this writing. For more information, visit jukeboxheromusical.com or mirvish.com or call 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.

Brushstrokes of natural rhyme

An example from her "Enso" series as part of calligraphist Noriko Maeda's exhibition Foundations at the Japan Foundation Toronto centre.

Noriko Maeda: Foundations

Venue: Japan Foundation Toronto, 2 Bloor Street, 3rd Floor

Dates/Times: Through January 11; Mondays and Thursdays 11:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m., Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Saturday openings (December 15 and January 5) 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (NOTE: closed other Saturdays and Sundays and Holiday period December 22-January 3)

Admission/Information: FREE. Call 416-966-1600 ext.229 or jftor.org

Gallery Review

Calligraphy is one of the world's oldest art forms that we often don't consider on a daily basis and in the digital era, it's almost an art dangerously being threatened of a world becoming more reliant on text to facial, eye and fingerprint recognition as a form of signature. Japanese-born Canadian artist Noriko Maeda still shows the form continues to have currency in the Japan Foundation Toronto exhibit, Foundations.

The culmination of a three-year project, Foundations stems from her displays of the mature form of the ancient vocabulary in the pages of a single book, several example of brushstroke and composition are the mainstays of Japanese calligraphy as well as character, poetry and even sound procedure, boundaries and time cycles. It's basically her language of style that holds the most interest in something like "Waves" or the scratchy splatter technique in "Not Knowing" to the spiral grey washes found in the "Sun and Moon" series.

Other than the basic black ink on white rice paper, a trace of blue ("Dream") or gold on black ("Dragon") or even the astringent beauty can be found with the splash strokes of white ink on black for "As It Is" and "Flow." While the strongest and most expressive works can be seen in the widen, circular strokes "Enso" series, her adaptation of classic Japanese poetry shouldn't be ignored be it the quirky 9th-century romanticism of Ono-no-Komachi's "I Met You in My Dream" or Kobayashi Issa's short works "The Ocean Reminds Me of My Late Mother," "A Small Snail Slowly Ascends Mount Fuji" and "Snow Covers me to my Heart" that visually say so much with so little textually.

And never bypass the exhibit's titular companion video showing the artist at work in her Vancouver home studio, whose fast and hard brushstrokes are so attuned to nature in the video's eight-minute running time, including a simple explanation on how the making the ink itself are a sense of meditation for her in all of its aspects on how "natural rhyme" is her basic quest in her work and lengthy career.

EDITION #203 - WEEK OF NOVEMBER 26-DECEMBER 2, 2018

Generosity, grace and giggles pervade Toronto's yuletide season

The international stage sensation Slava's Snowshow returns to Toronto in over 20 years as part of the city's holiday season entertainment.

Holiday Listings 2018

This holiday season in Toronto has a lot to offer from snow-centric clowns, a variety of musical comedies, charitable and cultural events, thematic concerts and the like indoors and outdoors between now and into the new year in making spirits bright around town.

Ongoing now until this Sunday (December 2), Harbourfront Centre (235 Queen's Quay West) has the first-ever NORDEN: The Festival of Cool that explores the world's growing fascination with Nordic countries and culture, examining the particular hallmarks that set them apart and gives rise to innovative leaders in the arts, business and social landscapes with 90 percent of the events being free to the public, including holiday markets and family events; plus the DJ Skate Nights season running every Saturday night at the Natrel Rink through to February 16.

The Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre (6 Garamond Court) holds its eighth annual Fuyu Matsuri Winter Festival this Sunday (December 2) that is a all-day celebration of Japanese and Canadian winter traditions ranging from food, kids activities, a holiday marketplace, a cosplay fashion show and contest and much more (Please note this is a cash-only event and there are no ATMs onsite).

In music, there's plenty to sing about at Hugh's Room Live (2261 Dundas Street West) with the nine-member, all-male a cappella group The Mistletones formed by John McDermott and other St. Michael's Choir School alumni since 1980 with a combination of choral and jazz, they perform a mix of a few sacred songs along with some popular Christmas favourites, but not your typical Christmas carols on December 6; the local conscience-folk group The Cherry Trees Band and Friends Fundraiser on December 3 supporting Water for Life, managed by GAiN (The Global Aid Network). Created in 2015, Cherry Trees Band created the Change The World campaign (with the accompanying album of same name) that raised C$42,500 and built five wells providing water for more than five thousand Africans in need. This year's goal, along with launching their sophomore release, Aqua (Independent), is to beat it with raising C$85,000 to supply water to ten thousand; as one well alone costs C$8,500 to build and that one well supplies one thousand people with fresh water for up to 25 years. All proceeds will go directly to this cause.

Two other charity concerts at Hugh's Room is the twelfth annual Ault Sisters' Celebrate the Season Brunch concert on December 16 for the whole family, where sisters Amanda, Alicia and Alanna along with pianist Dave Restivo, bassist Russ Boswell and Ethan Ardelli on drums throw in their mix of jazzy holiday favourites and new season-appropriate material with proceeds going to World Vision and former JAZZ-FM 91 personality Jaymz Bee presents A Very Tiki Christmas December 22 with his The Tiki Collective (TTC) of instrumentalists and vocalists that include bassist George Koller, Eric St-Laurent on guitar, drummer Great Bob Scott, vibraphonist Michael Davidson and Bill McBirnie on flute with Bee, Jocelyn Barth, Lily Frost, John Finley, Heather Luckhart and other on vocals -- plus some surprise guests -- to support the Unison Benevolent Fund, a non-profit, registered charity that provides counselling and emergency relief services to the Canadian music community in assisting professional music makers in times of hardship, illness or economic difficulties.

Canadian rock-pop legend Andy Kim puts on his annual Christmas charity show at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre December 20 with special musical guests from Ron Sexsmith to the supergroup The TransCanada Highwaymen.

Grammy-winning jazz chanteuse Dianne Reeves brings her holiday show Christmas Time Is Here to the George Weston Recital Hall at the Toronto Centre for the Arts (5040 Yonge Street) on December 4 singing selections from her widely-acclaimed 2004 album, Christmas Time is Here (Blue Note/UMG) and other holiday favourites; and Canadian 1960s and '70s pop/rock legend Andy Kim (Baby, I Love You; Rock Me Gently) performs his annual charity fundraiser The Andy Kim Christmas on December 20 at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre (440 Locust Street, Burlington). With a Canadian who's who line-up of musical guests including Ron Sexsmith, Sarah Slean, Kevin Fox and The TransCanada Highwaymen (Steven Page, Sloan's Chris Murphy, the Odds' Craig Northey and Moe Berg of The Pursuit of Happiness fame) backing Kim -- who is also getting inducted into this year's Canada's Walk of Fame -- on pop classics and seasonal tunes, all proceeds will go to the Arts Centre's Golden Ticket program, which provides complimentary access to professional entertainment and artistic workshops to underserved schools and students in the Halton region.

For the first time ever, St. Michael's Choir School will present its holiday offerings from Roy Thomson Hall (60 Simcoe Street), as its usual location, Massey Hall undergoes renovations for their 81st annual Christmas Concert December 9-10. Featuring a musically rich blend of both secular and sacred carols to usher in the Christmas season with a repertoire includes Benjamin Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols," a choral piece written in 1942 featuring text in Middle English from The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems. This piece will open the concert as performed by the Junior Choir, under the direction of Maria Conkey with accompaniment by harpist Lori Gemmell, while its Senior Choir appears in the second half of the concert under the direction of principal conductor S. Bryan Priddy, who makes his Roy Thomson Hall conducting debut and, with additional accompaniment from special guests True North Brass; performing selections such as Piae Cantiones' "Personent Hodie," "O Magnum Mysterium" by Morton Lauridsen, Johann Ritter von Herbeck's "Pueri Concinit" and the Nigerian Carol "Betelehemu" by Babatunde Olatunji, to be sung in Yoruba.

Need a little break from those sugar-coated carolling songs? Art of Time Ensemble has the fourth edition of their irreverent holiday concert To All a Good Night (December 13-15) at Harbourfront Centre Theatre (231 Queen's Quay West) and will travel the production for the first time to an additional two locations as part of the 2018-2019 Ontario tour in Ottawa (December 19) and Brampton (December 21). The concert's repertoire includes beloved Christmas classics from Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" to John Lennon's "Happy Xmas/War is Over;" but they will also dabble into more darkly comical material like Robert Earle Keene's redneck romp "Merry Christmas from the Family," The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York" and John Prine's "Christmas in Prison."

Moving towards theatre, bizarre offerings come from various indie companies with world premieres from the commissioned The Wonder Pageant (December 2-23) at Coal Mine Theatre (1454 Danforth Avenue) created and directed by Kayla Lorette (That's So Weird!) and Ron Pederson as an unscripted evening of improv comedy, merry music and holiday cheer, with a few ugly sweaters thrown in for good measure on a nightly basis; while returning December 20 at Bad Dog Theatre (875 Bloor Street West) is the ensemble of Songbuster - An Improvised Musical with their December edition of this monthly show by creating an hour-long musical from suggestions provided by the audience.

Ross Petty puts together his 23rd pantomime The Wizard of Oz - A Toto-ly Twistered Family Musical at the Elgin Theatre November 30 to January 5.

Returning to Toronto for the first time in two decades, the scruffy, disarming army of clowns of Slava's Snowshow (December 7-16) will take audiences on a spellbinding adventure, unleashing full-throttle madness amidst enchanting and contemplative moments, before roaring to its legendary finish at St. Lawrence Centre's Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front Street East). The recipient of more than twenty international awards, including an British Olivier Award, a Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination; the visual and musical extravaganza as created by Russian-born pantomime artist Slava Polunin offers a dream-like vision that, since its 1996 Edinburgh Festival debut; overflows with theatrical magic and humorous antics within an absurd and surrealistic world of "idiots on the loose."

Easing on down the road back to the fractured fairytale routine, Ross Petty Productions rehashes their latest pantomime The Wizard of Oz - A Toto-ly Twistered Family Musical (November 30-January 5) at the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge Street) with Camille Eanga Selenge from The Book of Mormon as Ossington dog-walker Dorothy who finds herself in Oz and as the enemy of the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Sara-Jeanne Hosie of The Wild Party after she accidentally squishes her sister the Wicked Witch of the East. With hilarious help from draggy Sugarbum, the Good Witch of the North as portrayed by Grease 's Michael De Rose and the funniest trio with more courage (Daniel Williston), heart (Eric Craig) and brains (Matt Nethersole) since The Three Stooges, plus the cheers and boos from the audience; Dorothy just might make it back home.

Soulpepper Theatre brings out not only their cherished standbys for the season, A Christmas Carol (December 7-24) and Dora-winning musical Peter Pan (December 8-January 5) with Bad Hats Theatre; they have new editions the Wee Festival-commissioned Tweet Tweet! (December 28-29), an aerial arts and circus creation for younger children ages 0-5 performed in an intimate forest-like setting of two little birds asleep in their nests high in a magical tree awake and discover each other and a wondrous world around them and a world premiere from the creators of their smash-hit Americana musical Spoon River ,Rose (January 17-February 10). Based on the obscure Gertrude Stein children's book The World is Round, this brand-new family musical centers on the titular quiet kid from the town of Somewhere, who sees the world a little differently and embarks on the adventure of a lifetime and conquer the mountain that stands in her way.

Cirque du Soleil's festive funereal masterpiece Corteo is back in town after a twelve-year absence December 12-16 for a limited holiday engagement at Scotiabank Arena (40 Bay Street), about a clown who may or may not be facing his own mortality as his circus family of friends and colleagues plunges him and the viewer in a mysterious space between heaven and earth with a fun sense of spontaneity, as it is of human drama. This is definitely one of the company's best touring productions in the last decade and should not be missed out.

Soulpepper Theatre puts on the limited engagement of Tweet Tweet! for younger theatregoers December 28 to 29.

If you lost out scoring tickets for the National Ballet of Canada's sold-out run of The Nutcracker, there's always the Toronto International Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet's classical presentation for two performances only on December 22 (2 and 7 p.m.) that will feature principal dancers of the world-renowned Bolshoi Ballet, Anastasia Stashkevich and Vyacheslav Lopatin, at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts (1 Front Street East) with spectacular sets and beautiful choreography by noted choreographer and former Prima Ballerina Tatiana Stepanova.

And get ready to 'Skate the 8 in the Six' again with the second season under the Gardiner Expressway at The Bentway (250 Fort York Boulevard) beginning December 21 with free admission. Stretching 1.75 kilometres of ice from Strachan Avenue in the west to just east of Bathurst Street underneath the Gardiner near Fort York National Historic Site, about 50,000 Torontonians last year braved record-breaking temperatures last winter in its inaugural season. There will be skate rentals and skating lessons, curated food and beverage options on select dates; and an expanded winter village full of snuggly blankets, warming lounges and fire pits with free Wi-Fi access and more details on festive programming to come.

***

Tickets are now on sale. For more information, visit harbourfrontcentre.com or artoftimeensemble.com or call 416-973-4000 (Harbourfront Centre events/Art of Time Ensemble); tocentre.com /1-855-985-2787 (Dianne Reeves); soulpepper.ca/416-866-8666 (Soulpepper Theatre); torontoballet.ca or sonycentre.ca/1-855-872-7669 (Sony Centre's The Nutcracker); rosspetty.com /1-855-599-9090 (Wizard of Oz); burlingtonpac.ca/905-681-6000 (Andy Kim's Christmas); hughsroomlive.com /416-533-5483 (Hugh's Room Live events); coalminetheatre.com (The Wonder Pageant); baddogtheatre.com/songbuster or songbustermusic.com (Songbuster); showoneproductions.ca or ticketmaster.ca/1-855-872-7669 (Slava's Snowshow); cirquedusoleil.com/1-888-212-4183 (Corteo); thebentway.ca(The Bentway); jccc.on.ca/en/ (Fuyu Matsuri Winter Festival) and roythomsonhall.com or stmichaelscathedral.com/concerts/416-872-4255 (St. Michael's Choir).

EDITION #202 - WEEK OF NOVEMBER 19-25, 2018

Stan Lee 1922-2018

Cartoon Tribute

Marvel Comics founder. Innovative superhero creator. Hammy MCU cameo spotlight stealer. 'Nuff said.

Game on(line) for Wreck-It Ralph sequel

Ralph Breaks the Internet (Walt Disney)

Voice Talents: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson

Directors: Phil Johnston and Rich Moore

Producer: Clark Spencer

Screenplay: Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon; story by Rich Moore, Phil Johnston, Jim Reardon, Pamela Ribon and Josie Trinidad

Film Review

Everybody's favourite videogame antagonist is back for more hilarious calamity with Ralph Breaks the Internet that not only continues to satirize the gaming world, but gives a bigger emphasis on the changing aspects of friendships as this spectacular follow-up to the 2012 smash hit Wreck-It Ralph proves to be and then some.

Wreck-It Ralph (Reilly) is seemingly quite content with things in the six years since the first film with hanging out with his best bud and racing dynamo/glitch Princess Vanellope von Schweetz (Silverman). And while she feels the same way with Ralph and life at Litwak's Video Arcade, she aches for a challenge she now feels is confining for her in her game Sugar Rush.

When the game's steering handle gets broken and gets unplugged by arcade owner Mr. Litwak (Ed O'Neill) for repairs, it leaves her and her fellow game mates temporarily homeless that might become a permanent status if the hard-to-replace component isn't found, due to costs. Luckily, the arcade had already acquired a Wi-Fi connection and it's up to Ralph and Vanellope to venture into the untamed wilds of the World Wide Web to find one.

Wandering and learning about the complexities of the Infobahn, they enlist the help of the popular app Buzzztube run by its head algorithm Yesss (Henson) that Ralph must raise the money needed to buy the handle through a series of wacky video antics. Meanwhile, Vanellope discovers the roughen racing world of Slaughter Race (a obviously PG-rated parody of Grand Theft Auto ) and her street-smart counterpart, Shank (Gadot), who opens her up to explore new horizons that could threaten their friendship.

As the rare sequel that surpasses the original, Ralph Breaks the Internet more than visually provides the gaming adventure as anticipated by its beloved characters, it also allows Disney to poke fun at itself and their Star Wars /Muppets/Pixar/Marvel Studios franchises while creating a solid storyline on learning to accept changes in relationships as they become lengthier as a chance for self-growth and -discovery screenwriters Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon ingeniously crafts that made this film so worth waiting for (next to this year's Incredibles 2 ).

Reilly and Silverman being the mismatched team as the ham-fisted videogame bully and the diminutive speed demoness are the true hearts of this film with their comedic chemistry giving them true gravitas, together and alone; as they struggle to find and redefine themselves. Gadot voices the worldly Latina racer Shank, who unexpectedly becomes a big sister figure to Vanellope, is an interesting angle and character thrown here along with Alan Tudyk as the annoyingly know-it-all search engine figure KnowsMore; Henson plays ultra-cool cyber-capitalist Yesss who'll milk any trend for all its worth when she sees it and Alfred Molina as Double Dan makes for a fun, if brief unknowing foil from the shadier side of the 'Net.

Speaking of big sisters, having the past and present Disney Princesses (all eleven of the original fourteen are reunited for the first time reprising their roles) and Vanellope accidentally meeting each other in the OhMyDisney.com fansite and almost immediately embracing her as part of the sisterhood -- even tunesmith Al Menkin pens Vanellope's own theme song, "In This Place," that's dead-on spoofing his own Disney collaborations from Beauty and The Beast to The Little Mermaid -- is the film's crowning (and feministic) achievement.

While Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer) and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) seem to have been sorely shoved to the side this time around in their limited roles, Ralph Breaks the Internet is still a more than worthwhile film for everyone to get a laugh at online gaming, e-commerce and social media directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore perfectly and rightfully skewers.

Insightful segregation-era drama

Green Book (Universal/DreamWorks)

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Don Stark

Director: Peter Farrelly

Producers: Jim Burke, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga and Charles B. Wessler

Screenplay: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie and Peter Farrelly

Film Review

Green Book is not, contrary to mistaken belief, the male reversal version of Driving Miss Daisy as this year's Toronto International Film Festival People's Choice Award-winning true-life period drama insightfully points out the mannerisms and social mores of an America searching to find common ground on equality from the unlikeliest of all filmmakers behind it (more on that later).

Italian-American waiter and sometime-bouncer Tony Vallelonga a.k.a. Tony Lip (Mortensen) in 1962 New York finds himself underemployed as his job at The Copacabana nightclub closes for renovations for a two-month stretch and does almost everything to provide for his family in the Bronx. When he gets an offer for a chauffeuring job for a classically-trained concert pianist with his trio for an eight-week tour across the Midwest and American South, it sounds like the easiest gig in the world with just one exception.

The pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), is an African-American who is a rare anomaly in every case of the word. Being classically-trained since the age of three, fluent in several languages and a highly-regarded performer, he strictly performs classical music to the mostly white high society audiences, has no comprehension or desire to play the popular music of the time so commonly attributed to African-Americans and has fastidious manners that seem out of place to the working-class Lip; plus being a closeted gay man.

As they travel together, Lip and Shirley both have to contend and face their own preset worldviews and challenges they have of each other in race and class, especially when the driver has to follow the Green Book, a listed accommodations guidebook of where African-Americans could stay throughout the segregated Southland that are basically fleabag motels; that an unexpected friendship develops between them.

This is one film I would never expect from Peter Farrelly, the director behind such crass comedies There's Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber and Shallow Hal ; to ever make it with such maturely on a sensitive and timely topic as wisely co-written with Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga, as loosely based the script on his father Tony's experiences and lifelong friendship with Shirley, who both died in 2013 months apart from each other; is as heart-warming and moderately funny as it is hard-hitting staring at the face of what was (and still is) bold-faced acceptable racism.

Mortensen packed on a few pounds to play the straight-shooting Tony Lip with a humility and down-to-earthiness core to it, who had initially turned down the job that turned into a life lesson learned about his own prejudices and the art of eloquent letter-writing to wife Delores (Cardellini); even when his character's manners are so cavalier and uncouth that is still likeable. Ali is quite solemn in an another Oscar-worthy performance as Shirley being a man of his time willing to have the grace to withstand such unbearable barriers to his life and career, yet is so uncomfortable in his solitude in wanting to gain acceptance for being himself from either side of the divide.

Even as it plays out as a by-the-book drama at times in its structure, Green Book gives a certain amount of appeal about two different men from differing worlds who quietly broke certain conventions that looked so hard to penetrate over half-a-century ago and that it still has a long ways to go before it can truly achieve a fair and just nation that it so wants to achieve.

Monkey Wrenched

The Monkey Queen (Red Snow Collective/Theatre Centre)

Incubator for Live Arts Space, Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West

Friday, November 16; 7:30 p.m.

Theatre Review

Inspired by the ancient Chinese tale, performer and playwright Diana Tso forges a story about female identity and empowerment out of The Monkey Queen that has its moments in reimagining Wu Cheng'En's 16th-century epic novel The Journey to The West main character The Monkey King, but could use a bit more tuning with the storyline despite its grounded visual and audible context.

Flitting between reality and fantasy out of Tso's own personal artistic and cultural journey, she performs both herself and the titular role along with partner Nicholas Eddie also in multiple roles in explaining the origins of the warrior-heroine and her own life story going in-between her birthplace of Hong Kong and Canadian home where she feels that East-West tug of separateness. In a series of adventures and experiences, she rediscovers her sense of spiritualism of both worlds in her soul searching in and through her artistry can she find any true balance for herself.

It starts out intriguingly enough in weaving text, movement, visuals and music as diligently provided through director/choreographer/scenic designer William Yong's expressive otherworldly set and flowing direction, Elyshia Poireir's inventive projector visuals, Rebecca Picherack's lighting designs and music score by Nick Storring and Brandon Valdivia.

Yet, The Monkey Queen seem to lose some of its cohesion in the latter-half of the sixty-five minute running time that could have been tighter of this constant case of identity- and story-shifting that kind of wears thin after a bit. The production still has the potential there to be entertaining and imaginative, but it least performers Tso and Eddie put on their best effort in trying to make these elements all work when it does.

***

The Monkey Queen continues through December 2. For tickets and information, call 416-538-0988 or visit theatrecentre.org or redsnowcollective.ca.

EDITION #201 - WEEK OF NOVEMBER 12-18, 2018

HUMANS boldly reveal our strengths and weaknesses

HUMANS (CIRCA/Sony Centre)

Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, 1 Front Street East

Friday, November 9; 8 p.m.

Theatre Review

It has been quite a number of years since I'd seen the Australian contemporary circus troupe CIRCA perform here in Toronto, having almost being spoiled by getting too used to watching the likes of their counterparts, Cirque du Soleil and Cirque Eloize. But while those companies rely on the glitz and gimmicks -- which there's nothing wrong with that at all -- CIRCA is a more of a stripped-down, back-to-basics circus artistry that surprisingly works in their favour and their latest production, HUMANS , certainly does.

For their November 9th one-night date at the Sony Centre, the ten-person ensemble began things with a series of tumbles, swings and spins like some kind of extreme gymnastics class (including a little hair-pulling!) that was balletic most times in the seventy-minute running time they engaged into.

While the program mainly sticks to the physicality of things, like any circus, they had their clownish side to reveal, too. This is more prevalent while trying to do elbow-bending contortionism to Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You" to a couple latching onto each other with person-to-person acrobatics over James Brown's "Please, Please, Please," it would be hard not to laugh at the interaction involved here.

In their more brilliant moments, the best numbers go directly to their Banquine act as members literally walk on top of each others' skulls without toppling over and the daring human totem pole stacking they do almost effortlessly that the show's theme truly does come across: the interaction between us on how we depend and support each other that at times, seem almost like a lost commodity in today's world.

Through the lighting and technical designs of Jason Organ, HUMANS ' mood is kept on a relative vein of the bareness and bare necessities of the performance at hand where each performer puts out their best, especially during the solo bungee cord strap and trapeze numbers. Right to its syncopated tumbling conclusion, CIRCA fully reminds us the physicality human beings can achieve, as well as point out our frailties; and we are a wonder to behold at times in our art that makes all the difference when we take the time to see it.

Fun, fantastical Grinch gets it right

The Grinch (Universal)

Voice Talents: Benedict Cumberbatch, Angela Lansbury, Cameron Seely, Kenan Thompson

Directors: Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier

Producers: Janet Healy and Christopher Meledandri

Screenplay: Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow; based on the book by Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel

Film Review

While it's for certain nothing could ever possibly surpass the 1966 animated holiday television special How the Grinch Stole Christmas , as ingeniously created by Chuck Jones from Dr. Suess' most beloved literary masterpiece; Illumination comes pretty close with their remake, The Grinch, by giving it a makeover in story and visual structures only the animation house behind the Despicable Me franchise and The Secret World of Pets could deliver.

As the citizens of the idyllic alpine hamlet of Whoville gets ready for the festive season, the solitary green grump The Grinch (Cumberbatch) looks down from his Mount Crumpit residence with such contempt for the holiday and its inhabitants -- due to a orphaned childhood that showed no such tidings of comfort and joy for him -- that he shuts out all sense of belonging or caring for anything, with the exception to his ever-faithful and positively-spirited canine Max.

Obsessed in putting a stop to the festivities that become a sensory overload for him, courtesy of the closest thing he has to a neighbour, the annoyingly ultra-nice Bricklebaum (Thompson); the Grinch comes up with that wonderful, awful idea of ideas: by stealing it under the guise of Santa himself and even goes out of his way to recruit the fattest reindeer of all to help him pull off his Christmas Eve heist on Whoville.

Meanwhile, sweet young Cindy Lou Who (Seely) has a mission and a plan to give a personal message to Santa Claus, who selflessly wishes for life to be a bit easier for her single mom Donna Lou (Rashida Jones) that is overworked in trying to support her and her twin baby brothers. Can an accidental encounter with the Grinch be able to increase his two-sizes too small of a heart to show him the true meaning of Christmas?

Compared to the 2000 Ron Howard live-action version, there's a certain sense of optical extravagance and extended storyline here that pales that film and the Jones version in comparison which makes one wonder if Suess would have approved of, yet it is highly vibrant that directors Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier along with Colin Stimpson's art direction manage to make it all kid-friendly. And while it's no easy feat to turn a full-length feature out of a children's book with just sixty-nine pages in it, screenwriter Tommy Swerdlow (Cool Runnings) and Michael LeSieur (You, Me and Dupree) manage to give it a fairly decent additional characters and backdrop which retaining some of the original material.

Cumberbatch is delightfully perfect as the titular Christmas killjoy being a nasty piece of work right on par with past Grinches Jim Carrey and Boris Karloff into his own; Seely plays the zippy Cindy Lou Who will melt hearts with her sense of sweet innocence and smarts she matches with her best friend Groopert, as voiced by Tristan O'Hare. Angela Lansbury's vocal contribution as the Whoville mayor is sadly underused, but one will get a kick from Thompson being the "the happiest Who of all" with his antics.

There's only two sour notes about the film (and sorry being a real "Grinch" about it) is having to listen to Pharrell Williams' narration that is just too cheery for itself and the hip-hop cover of "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch" by alt-rap star Tyler, the Creator sounds rather flaccid with no flow to it. But at least Danny Elfman's sublime film score is his best in years makes The Grinch a fun and fantastical treat for all ages.

Quietly powerful and dark gay bio-drama

Boy Erased (Focus Features/Universal)

Cast: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Madelyn Cline

Director: Joel Edgerton

Producers: Joel Edgerton, Steve Golin and Kerry Kohansky-Roberts

Screenplay: Joel Edgerton; based on the memoir by Garrard Conley

Film Review

The biographical drama Boy Erased remains a powerfully quiet and dark story adapted from author-activist Garrard Conley's 2016 memoirs based on his personal experience and survival from gay conversion therapy that pulls no punches writer/director/actor/co-producer Joel Edgerton (Loving ) spotlights on the methods and damage it inflicts from trying to change one's sexuality that is a must-viewing for the LGBT community and its supporters.

Renamed here as Jared Eamons (Hedges), he grew up as a typical all-American teenager from Arkansas playing high school basketball, hanging out with friends, had a steady girlfriend (Cline) but pretty well was a closeted gay youth unwilling to come out to his part-time Southern Baptist pastor and car dealer father Marshall (Crowe) and dutiful hairdresser mother Nancy (Kidman).

When he attends college, he's outed after his roommate Henry Collins (Joe Alwyn) rapes him one night and reluctantly goes into a twelve-day conversion therapy program run by this semi-maniacal therapist, Victor Sykes (Edgerton), to purge his gayness. Looking and feeling more like a prison than a day camp to get him to go straight, the budding writer starts to question not only about his relationship with his parents as the camp's methods become quite abusive, in particular to one troubled youth Cameron (Britton Sear), and looks to break free from it and be comfortable within his own sexuality.

Heavily praised at this year's Telluride and TIFF, the film points out the controversy behind the pseudoscientific program Edgerton nails on each level in pacing it through a series of flashbacks in darkened overtones by Eduard Grau's cinematography that give it its atmosphere and feeling in his direction and well-handled dialogue he evenly fits for the screen.

Hedges does a good job portraying Jared in all of his emotive moments and his determination to set his own life course; as Edgerton's performance, among his multitasking duties, is just dead-on target of a control freak looking to impose his will. Kidman shines as the repressed mom who slowly starts to see her own discomforts as well as her son's treatment and Crowe is highly convincing as the father trying to come to terms with Jared's sexuality as a man who means well but is just as lost as him.

Boy Erased not just only exposes the methods of shaming, bullying and religious enforcement that has effected about 700,000 Americans since the 1990s (with an additional 20,000 currently undergoing the practice that's still allowed in 35 states) but also for its lack of effectiveness, and at times its silliness; in solid performances from its main cast and bit players, including Australian pop star Troye Sivan as one secret rebellous program attendee and Cherry Jones' doctorial cameo; that should get some serious award attention about sexual tolerance and prejudices that still need to be embraced by society at large.

EDITION #200 - WEEK OF NOVEMBER 5-11, 2018

Semi-dark Nutcracker story an opulent fantasy

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (Walt Disney)

Cast: MacKenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren

Directors: Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston

Producers: Larry Franco and Mark Gordon

Screenplay: Ashleigh Powell and Tom McCarthy; screen story by Ashleigh Powell, based on the E.T.A. Hoffman story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King

Film Review

Always being on the forefront of doing live-action fantasy tales as it does for its animation division, Disney does a lush adaptation of the time-cherished Christmas tale The Nutcracker and the Four Realms that is a complete turnaround version of the traditional story which explores a bit darker storyline that is as artistic as it is from an entertaining perspective.

Set in 19th-century London, sixteen-year old Clara Stahlbaum (Foy) isn't really feeling the Christmas spirit with the recent passing of her beloved inventor mother that despite everything her father (Matthew Macfadyen) tries to put on a brave face on continuing with the festivities, along with her elder sister Louise (Elle Bamber) and younger brother Fritz (Tom Sweet).

Attending the fancy Christmas Eve party at the house of Mr. Drosselmeyer (Freeman), a mechanical engineer that was once her mother's guardian-benefactor and her godfather; the only thing she'd like for the holidays is the missing key that opens up a gilded mechanical egg that her mother left for her as her last request. During the gift ceremony where everyone follows a specific ribbon, Clara follows it deep into the magical world of the Four Realms that was created by her mother years ago and was deemed their queen.

Finding herself the unexpected heiress of this world -- and also inheriting her mother's scientific gene -- Clara is treated like royalty by her subjects from the Sugar Plum Fairy (Knightley) to the loyal Captain Phillip Hoffman (Jayden Fowora-Knight) of the Nutcracker Soldier Regiment. But she arrives at a time of war with the Fourth Realm ruled by the evil Mother Ginger (Mirren), a former regent of the Land of Amusements who now controls an army of frightening toys and the Mouse King.

Since the Mouse King had previously stolen the magical golden key which was Drosselmeyer's gift to her in order to take over the realms, it's up to the young Clara to get the key back to not only solve the mystery of the mechanical egg inasmuch as to uncover an underlying plot that threatens to destroy everything that remains of her mother's legacy.

Nothing is short of extravagant one can find in this ornate fantasy-adventure based on German author G.T.A. Hoffman's 1816 story, that would later inspire the beloved Nutcracker ballet that's now a winter holiday staple for amateur and professional dance companies worldwide; with a few unexpected twists involving loss, betrayal and courage that will surprise even those well-versed with the story.

The hiring of both Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston to direct the film amazingly does not create an artistic clash, as they synchromesh and compliment with each others' styles of filmmaking without making a mess out of screenwriters Ashleigh Powell and Tom McCarthy's graceful handling of the script, thanks to some decent editing by Stuart Levy, along with the spectacular special effects and art direction, Linus Sandgren's eye-pleasing cinematography, striking costuming by Jenny Beavan and James Newton Howard mixing his own lush score with Tchaikovsky's masterwork set pieces from his "Nutcracker Suite".

Foy is brilliant as she is grounded in playing the heroic lead who's learning to rebuild her life, as well as an inspiration for young girls to take up science and technology, as well as dance, in watching this film. Knightley and Mirren are playful (and startling) in their roles, as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Mother Ginger respectively; with their own agendas at work that make the film more unique than previous Nutcracker cinematic versions. While Foworo-Knight makes for a pretty good and smart sidekick to Clara; Freeman's bit role is reduced to a rather minor status as a grandfatherly-type figure, he does make his performance worth watching.

The Nutcracker and The Four Realms is bound to become a classic on its own being a feast for the eyes with a palpable storyline about the importance of family even during its darkest of times and the realization of destiny for all ages to enjoy.

Exploring HUMANS' physical humanity

Australian neo-circus troupe CIRCA returns to Toronto with the Canadian premiere of HUMANS

Theatre Preview

The human body is truly one of the most amazing biological machines created by nature, as it is perplexing and mysterious that we don't often see for its artistic merit on a regular basis. As a reminder of our possibilities and achievements, the Brisbane-based contemporary circus CIRCA brings their latest production, HUMANS, to Toronto this Friday (November 9).

As a Canadian first to the Sony Centre (1 Front Street East), the critically-acclaimed tribute to the human body's physicality is meant to bring a moment of pause as ten acrobats push themselves and their fellow members to the extreme, with the combination of Olympic-level gymnastic movements and hair-raising acrobatic tricks, they jump, somersault, toss each other in the air, balance on one another and twist their bodies in every direction.

"We humans are a fairly weak, unimpressive species," said Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz, who founded the company in 2004 and has since toured to over 39 countries worldwide. "Anything we can achieve physically can be easily surpassed by a well-trained monkey. An injured pigeon can fly higher and longer than the best acrobat in the world. A snake can bend infinitely more than the most flexible of contortionists.

"But it is precisely because we are human that our physical achievements acquire dignity, meaning, and poetry. It is in connection to our vulnerability that our strength finds its true articulation. In our limitations are our possibilities."

CIRCA is certainly no stranger in these parts. They've mainly performed here at Harbourfront Centre and the St. Lawrence Centre over the years as well as in New York, London, Berlin and Montreal, with seasons at Brooklyn Academy of Music, London's The Barbican Centre, Les Nuits de Fourviere in Lyon, France and the Chamaleon Theatre of Minneapolis-Saint Paul; as well as in major festivals and providing a training centre and regular circus programs with communities around their native Australia, including being the Creative Lead for the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games arts and cultural program more recently.

"In HUMANS , I have asked our ensemble of artists: what does it mean to be human?" Lifschitz questioned. "How can you express the very essence of this experience with your body, with the group and with the audience? Where are your limits, what extraordinary things can you achieve and how can you find grace in your inevitable defeat?

"The creation is the result of this investigation -- a report on what it means to be human."

***

HUMANS performs this Friday (November 9) for one night only. For tickets and information, call 1-855-872-7669 or sonycentre.ca.

Art and community matters in the Toronto-centric Journey

The importance of artistic merit gets focused on the remounted locally-based play, The Journey

Theatre Preview

Theatre productions about our city and its inhabitants come far and few in-between (if anyone can remember the long-forgotten Toronto! The Musical way back in the 1980s). Yet for one that talks about one area's revitalization and its contribution to it, The Journey makes another popular remount since its 2012 premiere for another limited run beginning this week (November 7) at Daniels Spectrum (585 Dundas Street East), Regent Park's cultural centre for some of the city's independent arts-related companies.

Inspired by true events, the play is written by The Daniels Corporation President Mitchell Cohen, co-producer Heela Omarkhail and director Kate Fenton, in collaboration with the Regent Park community; centers around poignant local teenaged poet, Afiya, who shines through writing and performing. When she's confronted by her cultural gender role, her parents refuse to accept her art; while an eye-opening trip to St. Vincent awakens some boys from the neighbourhood to a new understanding about life at home.

With a star-studded line-up from the 2012 original cast members soul-blues diva Jackie Richardson as Granny, Alana Bridgewater as Alana and Jeremiah Sparks as Dread, together with multi-talented local artists Trevlyn Kennedy as Sandy, Jael Jones Cabey as Tameeca, Jahni Boodoo-Nelson as Raffi and young Regent Park resident Limees Rizeig, who has been a part of the ensemble since its 2015 remount; this year welcomes her back in the leading role of Afiya.

Since debut in 2012 (it's been shown in 2013, 2015 and 2016), The Journey -- with a brand-new storyline for 2018 -- has raised over C$3 million in support of youth arts programming and sustainability at Daniels Spectrum, in addition to local economic development to give training and employment opportunities for youth performers the unique opportunity to gain and develop a deeper understanding of their artistic skills through professionals in specific disciplines like voice, dance and acting.

"It has been incredible to witness sold-out audiences from across the city applaud local artists and professionals sharing the stage to tell the stories of the Regent Park community," said the show's co-writer and co-producer Omarkhail. "This type [of] investment has allowed young performers to develop their artistic talent and become stars in their own right. The Journey demonstrates the transformative power of the arts at both the community and individual level."

***

The Journey opens this Wednesday (November 7) through to November 10 (NOTE: the November 7 Opening night and November 8 gala fundraiser events are SOLD OUT). For tickets and information, call 416-392-1038x32 or visit journeyregentpark.ca.

EDITION #199 - WEEK OF OCTOBER 29-NOVEMBER 4, 2018

The ups and downs of a Booker Prize laureate

Left-right: Authors Roddy Doyle, Jane Urquhart, Marlon James and Lewis DeSoto speak at the TIFA October 20th roundtable event at the Fleck Dance Theatre.

Toronto International Festival of Authors 2018 Reviews

Part 2 of a 2-part series

Man Booker Prize 50th Anniversary: Marlon James

Fleck Dance Theatre, Queen's Quay Terminal, 207 Queen's Quay West, 3rd Floor

Saturday, October 20; 7 p.m.

Getting an award for your work is always a pleasant surprise. But when one unexpectedly gets a major literary prize for a novel written partly in Pidgin English and experimental postmodernist structure that yet can still be understood, it's more of a shocker than a surprise as it was for Marlon James for his 2014 period crime thriller that earned the coveted Booker Prize, A Brief History of Seven Killings (Penguin Random House).

His spellbinding third book, a fictionalized account of the 1976 attempt on reggae legend Bob Marley's life by rival gangs and Cold War players caught up in the volatile politics of 1970s Jamaica spread over three decades, was on the bestseller and critics' choice lists (including mine) everywhere that year. As the Booker Prize nears its half-century mark, the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) honours the award for its audacity of challenging and changing the perceptions of contemporary fiction, as it invited James and fellow Booker Prize laureate Roddy Doyle along with past nominees Jane Urquhart and South African-born Canadian Lewis DeSoto, also the hour-long forum's moderator; to discuss the meaning of the Booker, its controversies and its impact on the winners on October 20 at Harbourfront Centre's Fleck Dance Theatre.

"I think that maybe the Bookers are an interesting thing," James weighed in on his perspective on the British-based award. "I think there are things that I like about the Booker Prize than I don't see in American [literary] awards. I like to read the winners on the short list because of that and I think that, if anything -- and I'm also an English teacher -- if it gets somebody to read, I'm going to defend [it].

"I think that the objections that seem to arise from the Bookers, like it's about four or six books [that make it on the short-list]; that it can still be a suggestion of a really good book. There are some novels, like (Arundhati Roy's) The God of Small Things , which I'm not sure that people would have picked up on without the Booker Prize. If some may think for whatever there's a negative [about the Booker Prize], the positive is that more people are reading and I would go for it."

"I've been on enough juries here and there, like in Dublin and on juries in the United States and various places; to know that you have to take something [of a risk]," said Canadian novelist Urquhart. "The real truth is that, when the jury comes to a conclusion about what is it that's going to be on the long list or the short list or whatever, they've usually taken the books in the same question seriously. In my experience, my fellow jurors have been very serious about their reading [choices] and very attentive to the fact that they're usually holding someone's heart in their hands when they're reading the book whether the book can be a brilliant work of art or not.

"I just wanted to address for a second too, the whole notion of whether or not we should read them, I think in a way that what Marlon says is absolutely true. I do remember going to bring when I was...I won't even tell you how old -- back in the late Seventies and I went into a bookstore and I saw these piles of books and I don't mean the Booker Prize [-nominated] books, I have no idea. I knew that I was a reader and I knew what I was interested in my own country's literature because we were at a developing stage at that point [literary-wise]. It was tremendously exciting time since I had never seen people go in and buy a book with the enthusiasm that was happening around this pile of five titles. Then I asked, 'What's going on here?' and they said: 'Well, there's this thing called the Booker Prize.' And I thought, 'Oh my god, how wonderful! Can you imagine that happening in Canada?'."

As to whether the Bookers are biased in having to choose one particular book out of the thousands printed across the British Commonwealth (and since 2014, extended to other authors throughout the English-speaking world) that have been the award's biggest controversy, Doyle defended against such a idea. "It's not the same group of people every year," explained the author of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha that copped him a Booker in 1993, "so I can't imagine that people chose (New Zealander author) Carrie Hume's book (The Bone People in 1985) or that after two hundred and twenty years later, that they say 'It's time to choose a Jamaican writer to win the Booker.' And to be quite honest, I've never paid that much attention to it."

"I think that it was Manuel Castells who said that: 'At some point in the future (humanity's) list of books reflects the people of the world [of that time],'" James added, being the first Jamaican and West Indian author to win the Booker. "And (historians) are going to say, 'Gee, (the winner) going to be some mediocre Black queer trans-Caribbean freak creature.' And that's never occurred to some that that person might be talented. And I think it's that kind of reasons when people raise those questions or the agony of the fact that these are reasons that we're reaching out to them is that it's some kind of political statement, instead of saying that 'Oh, we're just looking at good literature.'"

"Canada was really filled with colonial self-loathing in a way that I would think that many of us have forgotten, but when I was growing up there wasn't a single Canadian book [taught] on the curriculum in my public school, in my high school or at my university," Urquhart recalled on the pride one's nation should have over its literary culture. "So I do remember, however, that just when I was leaving university that there was a one-quarter turnout course that taught Canadian literature that included, I believe, Stephan Leacock and The Confederation Poets (a group of Canadian poets born in the decade of Canada's Confederation (the 1860s) who rose to prominence in the late 1880s and 1890s; like Charles G.D. Roberts and Pauline Johnson).

"First of all, I would never have believed that coming from a place that nurtured this colonial self-loathing that I could have ever been an author that actually got published, never mind an author where the mother country (England) might pay a little bit of attention," in regard to her being nominated for a Booker back in 2005 for A Map of Glass. "That being said, I also have to say that it was an affirmation moment for me because, of course, other really important -- much more important than me -- Canadian authors had already won this prize, so that there had been this unprecedented establishment in this country and by the time that I was honoured, so I was pleased just to be in the zone."

And talking about the major issue of winning a relatively substantial monetary purse on either being a curse or blessing, the Booker Award being worth about C$100,000, James proffered this: "[When I won], I thought 'I'm a adult now!' and 'I got a bigger online profile now.' Funny, I was on a panel [not long after getting the award] and somebody had brought up the history of the Booker and about sugar [being related to Afro-Caribbean slavery] and (British) oppression and colonialism and then asked me how I felt about taking 'tainted' money? And I said, 'Damn right I'm taking it, because it 'taint' enough!'

"But really, I think that the prize money itself is not that much life-changing. It is that when you wake up the next day and at least twenty-eight countries in the (English-speaking) world want to read your story. It just that when you write a book that wasn't necessarily successful before and I wasn't necessarily failing [as an author], but it was harder than it was on being on the bestseller list. Yet it does alter the fact that now people will now want to give [the previous works] a second look or even a third look."

"And I think when you don't write a particularly commercial novel and I realized a lot of times the books that I write actually do sell based on the good word on the book and on the name of the book and the good things they say about it." Yet, despite the success of Seven Killings, which has been touted of becoming adapted into a streaming online miniseries on Amazon Prime and is about to launch the first instalment of his African mythology-based fantasy series the Dark Star Trilogy, Black Leopard next February; he does offer this one concluding bit of sound advice. "But certainly, in your career as a writer, it would be very foolish to quit your day job for just over a hundred thousand dollars [prize money]."

Old-school superspy spoof keeps smoothly afloat

Johnny English Strikes Again (Universal)

Cast: Rowan Atkinson, Olga Kurylenko, Emma Thompson, Jake Lacy

Director: David Kerr

Producers: Tim Bevan, Chris Clark and Eric Fellner

Screenplay: William Davies; based on the characters created by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and William Davies

Film Review

Until they can rustle up another Austin Powers or James Bond film, we can still rely on Rowan Atkinson to return to his cult comedy franchise for Johnny English Strikes Again in his third outing as the accidental British superspy who manages to save the day as possibly being the best one in the series so far for all the pratfalls and entanglements one could possibly deliver.

When Britain is hit with a barrage of cyber-attacks that cripples the nation's daily routines, starting with exposing all of MI7's operatives online by some mystery hacker, the agency has to find the culprit behind them just before they host the upcoming G12 summit gathering of world leaders to avoid further embarrassment with...a real embarrassment.

Calling Johnny English (Atkinson) out of retirement from his cushy job as a geology teacher (of sorts) at a posh boarding school, he reunites with his old partner Angus Bough (Ben Miller) and are immediately assigned to trace the source of the cyber-attack to some super-yacht docked in the south of France, the Dot Calm, belonging to the intelligent and comely young Silicon Valley high-tech billionaire, Jason Volta (Lacy).

Encountering the seductive Russian arm-candy Ophelia (Kurylenko) who's somehow connected to all of this in a series of meetings, English believes Volta is the hacker in question despite the many doubts from his superiors, including the Prime Minister (Thompson) herself who's totally enamoured with him enough to allow him to handle the security measures at the summit that he must stop from unleashing Volta's nefarious scheme.

A simple if well-thought out plot hammered out by screenwriter William Davies who manages to not only tailor-fit the lead's talent for unexpected mayhem, but also provides a pointed satire on the over-reliance of technology and old-versus-new that is quite prominent with English and Bough's usage of their old-school toys from a classic red Aston Martin gas-guzzler to exploding jelly babies, is kept smoothly afloat by Northern Irish-born British television director David Kerr in a even pace, which isn't too bad for a cinematic debut.

Atkinson slips into his familiar mix of meshing his former alter-ego Mr. Bean-meets-Bond-meets-Inspector Clouseau can still garner a few laughs -- his scenes involving a virtual-reality simulation room and a night on a French hotel discotheque dance floor are tops -- as does Miller's welcome return as his more insightful sidekick, after missing in action from 2011's Johnny English Reborn.

Kurylenko makes out pretty well as the femme fatale that is a refreshing change of being funny and dangerous to Atkinson's wit after a round of MI7 leading ladies dominated the last two films; Lacy camps it up in that cocktail of sheer arrogance and cockiness as English's nemesis and Thompson, despite having a smallish role here as the British PM, nicely display her comical touches as an typical politician swooning to Volta's charms and who can turn on a dime (or in British currency, on a pence).

While Atkinson's brand of humour may not be everyone's cup of tea, Johnny English Strikes Again certainly has all its entertaining moments for his fans and Brit-com fans alike that won't be disappointed in seeing after the bumbling secret agent's eight-year absence way from the screen.

Bittersweet Science for the Great Black Hope

The Royale (Soulpepper Theatre)

Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre, Young for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane

Thursday, October 25; 7:30 p.m.

Theatre Review

It's been said that the more things change, the more things stay the same which has been quite an idiom throughout time, as demonstrated in the Soulpepper Theatre production of Marco Ramirez's The Royale, the award-winning 2015 historical sports drama about one man's struggle to be among the boxing greats against the systematic racism of his period that isn't too far off from today the company valiantly stages.

Jay "The Sport" Jackson (Dion Johnstone), an African-American boxer in early twentieth-century America, is given a golden opportunity to go up against a retired white boxing champ to officially claim the heavyweight champion title and a huge prize purse that could prove to be a catalyst of change and hope for millions of African-Americans under the chokehold of Jim Crow laws and to make history for himself, all arranged by his manager Max (Diego Matamoros).

As he prepares for the big fight to come with his trainer Wynton (Alexander Thomas) and sparring partner "Fresh Fish" Hawkins (Christef Desir), Jay is weighted by the challenge he faces from the death threats by bigots and what racial riots might be triggered, in particular from his elder sister Nina (Sabryn Rock) who warns him of the consequences in his pursuit for fame and fortune; should he win -- or lose -- to take on the inner and outer demons he brings into that ring all alone.

Loosely based on the life of Jack Johnson (1878-1946), the world's first African-American heavyweight boxing champion who'd pave the way for other pugilistic greats to follow from Joe Louis to Muhammad Ali; Ramirez puts an lot to think about in his expressionistic script about the extremities of the times his protagonist had to face that is clearly well brought out by Guillermo Verdecchia's fine direction in the ninety-minute play with call-and-response sequences, rhythmic stomps and boxing glove-smacks.

Johnstone takes on the lead with all the ego, charisma and gravitas he musters as one can feel his burdens while Rock provides the moment of pause for Jay and the production with great affect; Desir plays the young early challenger-turned-friend Fish who, too, shows his hunger for the top whilst being a seriocomic relief; as Matamoros' wheeler-dealer of a agent and Thomas' crusty and faithful trainer round off as veterans of the game who know what's at stake and the courage to follow through.

Ken MacKenzie makes good usage of the historical venue space's brickwork to make his boxing ring set design feel authentic to the 1900s, as well as the cast's costuming, along with the lighting designs of Michelle Ramsey and emotive score by Thomas Ryder Paine. The play is a thinking theatregoers' (real-life) Rocky , taking on the underdog approach of the boxer's mental state into something so dear to the heart of winning and the cost of victory against racism that comes with it inside and outside of the ring with the bittersweetness put to "the sweet science".

***

The Royale continues through November 11. For tickets and information, call 416-866-8666 or visit soulpepper.ca.

EDITION #198 - WEEK OF OCTOBER 22-28, 2018

Doyle on writing, pub culture and The Carpenters; Book Bash returns

Toronto International Festival of Authors' 2018 PEN Canada cause celebre spotlights on Ukrainian writer and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov currently serving a 20 year-sentance in Russian-annexed Crimea on politically-motivated "terrorism" charges and is undergoing a indefinate hunger strike to protest his incarceration.

Toronto International Festival of Authors 2018 Reviews

Part 1 of a 2-part series

In Conversation: Roddy Doyle with Emma Donoghue

Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building, University of Toronto, 80 Queen's Park

Thursday, October 18; 7:30 p.m.

In making up for cancelling last year's planned event at the Toronto International Festival of Authors (formerly the International Festival of Authors), noted Irish wordsmith Roddy Doyle made good on being at TIFA's opening night event at the University of Toronto's Walter Hall to a full house in promotion of his latest tome, Smile (Jonathan Cape/Penguin Random House Canada), hosted by Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue as both writers nicely traded quips for a hour-long chat on the writing process and Dolye's themes.

Smile , as centered around the experiences of a young student dealing with a pedophile priest at a Irish Catholic school in the 1970s and the scandal that reveals itself many decades later as a adult grappling with the abuse of trust; is not from any experience the soft-spoken Booker Prize-winning author ever endured as he stated, but the title itself is loosely based on a benign memory of his when he was thirteen, from one such clergyman which sounds kind of ominous now.

"It was a Friday afternoon [when it happened] and the weather was good outside," Doyle recalled, "and we were asking to go outside and it was the last class of the day. And I was pleading 'Please, Brother, Please, Brother,' so he let us out and as I was the last one to leave, he turned to me and he said 'Roddy Doyle, I can never resist your smile.'

While he had escaped such a fate and later himself became a schoolteacher before taking up writing full-time, he still has some bittersweet memories of how strict the priests were back in his day compared to now. "But when you're in the back of the classroom [in those days], when such [schoolboy] mischief was happening, there was the knowledge that if you are caught laughing, you are dead. And I when my kids went to elementary school, they knew their teachers by their first names. And they still talk about how they liked school and I thought we sent them to the wrong school."

Asked about how he feels as a writer about if certain subjects are a burden to write about, Doyle simply rebuffed such notions. "I never think of the issue. I think about the characters so the issue follows behind them, really," he said. "And yet, I don't feel I must write only of my own conscience in my work and my own touch. I don't think I really need to write anything else in the way that I work in my stories, like I need to set them located the vast majority of them in the northeast of Dublin. And when you're writing them in your book you're setting your own standard which, to me, is quite an understatement. And it's a terrifying enough experience, particularly when you come to the end and you hand it over and somebody having to go back and read it."

When asked if he listens to music when he writes and if it has any influence on him, he quickly concurred: "Well, it probably does. I [once] wrote a book called The Commitments ! At this stage, I look for a kind of musician or a style of music to accompany to. So the book that I'm working on at the moment it's a kind of jazz of the Charles Mingus-Charlie Parker-John Coltrane era, if that's the right word or style.

"And I really didn't know it and I just fiddle around with it while I'm working and it gives me an energy [of sorts]. I don't what it is, but lately I've [also] been listening to The Carpenters. When I was a teenager I would have dismissed it completely -- privately I liked it [then], but publicly wouldn't."

"I never sat down to [plan to] write anything funny or tragic or whatever, it's just in the mix," in regard to what is referred to as the so-called trademark humour Doyle is best known for. "I don't like personalizing things too much. My two sons, for example, when they were very, very small we went on holiday in France and this one particular evening, when they were five and three; they were running around and round and they'd gotten some ice cream. And I'm just sitting there looking at this scene watching them running around and round and, I'd say, it was probably that I was at my most happiest in my life.

"Ten minutes later and one of these sons, the five-year old, made a break for the road and ran between two cars. And I grabbed the collar of his t-shirt with the last bit of my finger and just stopped him as one of the cars almost brushed him. So it could have gone from the happiest to being so distraught beyond belief, in the space of ten minutes. And that's life, isn't it?"

"So when I'm writing, I don't think too much about style no matter what, I just do it. Or examine the approach comes out to whatever is there."

Moving away from the business of writing, Doyle and the author of 2010's Room -- who also earned an nomination the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for the 2015 film version -- discussed the basic and quintessential staple of Anglo-Irish culture that spread around the world and how it differs in what male relationships are made of, the pub. "I have friends who I go to the pub during the week and they're really good friends, but we never go to each others' houses," he admits.

"I have this great friend, Paul, and I was thinking about when the last time I went to his house and it was his fiftieth birthday and it was ten years ago. I saw him Monday, I saw him last Thursday and I'll see him next Thursday [at the pub]," as Donoghue stressed that pubs aren't just for drinking as they are neighbourhood cultural centres within Irish culture, with Doyle joyfully adding: "And crisps!"

Children play with the latest gadgets to encourage imagination at the October 20th Toronto Public Library-backed Book Bash event at Bill Boyle Artport.

Book Bash

Bill Boyle Artport, Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queen's Quay West

Saturday, October 20; 12-4 p.m.

After a yearlong absence, the Toronto Public Library-sponsored Book Bash returned to the fest as the mini-festival of celebrating and supporting Canadian children's literature and artists culminated with the odd-assortment of readings, demos and concerts throughout the Artport, although it felt like it was a toned-down affair of sorts unlike the last one back in 2016 with less attendees despite a relatively good line-up.

Prolific kid-lit author Helaine Becker engaged with her tiny audience in the Brigantine Room mainly promoting her array of titles, including her latest Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs and Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 (Kids Can Press); where her type of literature focuses on the educational level rather than entertaining tales.

There were interesting aspects to her work from teaching the love of reading (You Can Read), learning to make friends in a new place (Sloth at the Zoom) and about the rather fascinating work of being a zookeeper (Worms For Breakfast: How to Feed a Zoo) and the innovative ways in how to care and feed for them.

Elsewhere there was the usual plethora of side activities from face painting, art workshops, roaming popular book characters but the main hub was at the Studio Theatre where the event's locally-based family entertainers were, including Mr. Chris & The Gassy Bubbles with their brand of rock-pop from headman-puppeteer Chris Bubbles on keyboards, bassist Manny Bubbles and drummer David Bubbles playing familiar rhymes "This Is The Way" and "Itsy-Bitsy Spider" with a hip-hop underlay to them to original tunes "Sleeping Bunnies," instrumental "Five Little Monkeys" and the U2-influenced "We're A Rock 'n' Roll Band."

Enjoyable as they were, it seemed that the kids were more entranced with their use of a bubble machine than the performance and Chris Bubbles' vocals for characters Jordan the Rastafarian Bear, an animal-fearing senior named Waffles and a new character, the orange-furred monster Sonny; could have worked a bit better on range (they all sounded in a falsetto tone). I really wasn't expecting The Muppet Show , but at least there's some originality to their act and music.

The follow-up act A WonderPhil Magic Show was a highlight with the award-winning veteran illusionist was more than entertaining with his prankster personality and even amazing tricks for all ages, as preceded TPL storyteller Samantha Dizon came up with two original stories with illustrations on Power Point for Mama's Dumplings, very loosely based on a Japanese folktale (and her own family) and Howl-O-Ween Library about witches, robots and kid-friendly monsters at a all-night library seemed like a obvious plug for visiting your local library (which is always a good idea), yet they were fun readings.

***

NEXT: Part 2 -- Man Booker Prize 50th Anniversary: Featuring Marlon James. TIFA 2018 continues through to Sunday (October 28). For tickets and information, call 416-973-4000 or visit festivalofauthors.ca

BSC's tomboyish leader undergoes big changes

The Baby-Sitters Club: Kristy's Big Day

by Gale Galligan; based on the Ann M. Martin novel

160 pp., Graphix/Scholastic Books Canada

Softcover, $13.99

Graphic Novel and Comics/Children and Young Teens

Book Review

The runaway graphic novel adaptations of Ann M. Martin's The Baby-Sitters Club -- also well known as BSC -- that were launched a couple of years ago breathe a new life into classic 1980s young teen literary series under the original graphic novelist (and past series fan) Raina Telgemeier and continues under her former apprentice Gale Galligan since 2017's Dawn and The Impossible Three with the sixth in the series, Kristy's Big Day, that shows not only a new change in the adolescent caretakers' lives, but also a new evolution in the characters' development.

Seen from the perspective each of the members' lives, it returns back to the president and founder of the club Kristy Thomas (who was the focus of the first book, Kristy's Great Idea) as she prepares for the upcoming nuptials of her divorced mother Elizabeth and her "millionaire-rich" fiance Watson, which includes mixing in her future younger stepsiblings Karen and Andrew from his first marriage; along with her own older teen brothers Charlie and Sam and younger brother David Michael moving into his palatial home in the fictional New England town of Stoneybrook.

Upon the last day of school for summer break, the plans go into a major upheaval on two fronts: Elizabeth's company is about to send her on a two-week business trip in Europe for September, which was the wedding day was originally set for, and the realtor has found a new buyer for the house she's grown up in and next to her best friend and Club member/secretary Mary Anne Spier and wants to move in two-and-a-half weeks' time.

If that weren't enough chaos to put together both a rushed wedding and move-out date, the wedding guests will be bringing in their young children along to a total of fourteen in need to be tended to while they're handling the rest of arrangements for the week. Ever the keen opportunist and entrepreneur, Kristy proposes that she and the Baby-Sitters Club take care of the kids while the adults go about their business that Elizabeth heartily agrees to with double their going rate.

As fellow BSC members Claudia Kishi, Stacey McGill, Dawn Schafer and newcomer Mallory Pike meticulous lay out their plans that would have the intensity and complexity to rival D-Day in their biggest assignment to date. But as the young ladies face every little turmoil that can be thrown at them when they face the handling a multitude of kids in keeping them entertained, maintained and under control, which isn't helped with Karen's knack of being a master horror storyteller at times; Kristy goes through her own emotions in being a bridesmaid and adjusting to a new life with her suddenly extended family.

The book maintains that delightful concoction of adolescent turmoil, humour and melodrama that has been the staple of the series that Galligan puts a fresh spin with her manga-inspired artistry with long-time colourist Braden Lamb, that was at first a bit jarring after being used to Telgemeier's work in first four books but now seem to take a acceptable life on its own without compromising the series' characteristics as well staying very faithful to Martin's original text, including not being updated to present technology or terms (nope, you won't find a cellphone or social media posting within these pages).

There's also a new maturity emanating from Kristy as she shifts from being the erstwhile resident tomboy to embracing her burgeoning femininity and attraction to the opposite sex ever-so slightly, which wasn't so visible in past books as will probably be for the rest of the cast in future editions. But will it also explain other things about them as to what could be the reason behind Claudia's misspelling of words in the club's journals (dyslexia perhaps?) or what will become of their relationship -- and their business - as they mature over time?

The Baby-Sitters Club: Kristy's Big Day is a more than welcome addition to the BSC line and for its old and new fans that are (re)discovering the series in its critically-acclaimed and accessible format that is sure to please for all ages.

Massive Bergman retrospective invades TIFF Lightbox

The Academy Award-winning Best Foreign Language 1982 period masterpiece Fanny and Alexander screens November 25 at TIFF Lightbox's Bergman 100: The Ingmar Bergman Centenary retrospective.

TIFF Cinematheque marks the Swede autuer's birth centenary with his complete filmography retrospective

Arts Feature/Film Review

"Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls."

- Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

The Seventh Seal. Scenes from a Marriage. Wild Strawberries. Fanny and Alexander. Persona. Just these titles alone all precede the man who needs no introduction other than Ingmar Bergman, perhaps Sweden's greatest filmmaker and world cinema's best known representative. For someone who once said "I'm very, very lazy. I love to sit in a chair and look out the window and do nothing," he certainly delivered a lot with his seven-decade career of memorable films that often dealt with death, illness, faith, betrayal, bleakness and insanity.

And since it would very much take a Herculean effort to see all sixty of his films made both for cinema and television, TIFF Lightbox's Cinematheque division breaks it all down in presenting Bergman 100: The Ingmar Bergman Centenary , a massive programme which has wildly played out to London and New York audiences of all his classics, documentaries, rarities and more recent restorations starting this week (October 24) and running through December 23.

Broken down into four periods, the programme covers The Early Years (1946-1950), Breakthrough and "Bergmania" (1951-1964), The Ullmann Era (1966-1978) and The Final Works (1980-2003), the programme involves two special one-week engagements of The Seventh Seal (November 2-8) and Persona (November 16-22) and two trilogy blocks with The Trilogy of Faith featuring his first of three Academy Award-winning films 1961's Through a Glass Darkly (November 24), Winter Light (November 2 and December 1) and The Silence (November 3) and The Faro Trilogy, which were filmed on the island that he called home from the mid-1960s until his death, with Shame (October 24 and November 10), Hour of the Wolf (November 16) and The Passion of Anna (November 17).

As an added bonus, the retrospective includes special events and talks that include critic/programmer Miriam Bale's perspective on the role of women in Bergman's films with the November 9 screening of Persona and pianist/classical music scholar Anyssa Neumann's lecture Classical Music in The Films of Ingmar Bergman on October 27. And Bergman's best-known muse, Liv Ullmann, will be at TIFF Lightbox for a three-event visit to Toronto -- she actually lived here during World War II as war refugees from the Nazi German occupation as a child with her family until after the war -- introducing the film that made her name as a teenaged unknown, Persona (October 23) and a In Conversation with... event hosted by TIFF Director/CEO Piers Handling and introducing Shame (both October 24); along with a mini-retrospective of her directorial works Faithless (also will introduce; October 23), Private Confessions (October 28), Miss Julie (October 30), Kristin Lavransdatter (November 3) and Sofie (November 6).

Bergman's 1953 rom-drama Summer with Monika gets screened October 27 and November 16 as part of Bergman 100: The Ingmar Bergman Centenary retrospective at TIFF Lightbox.

Among the many Bergman films on the list will be the film that pretty much launched him as a art-house heavyweight worldwide, the 1953 romantic-melodrama Summer with Monika (October 27 and November 16) that also, inadvertingly established the sexual-liberation stereotype about the country and its populace and was controversial for its brief nudity at the time that it got a "erotica" label stuck on it for years after its release (was even retitled as Monika, the Story of A Bad Girl by a American distributor that got a Los Angeles cinema owner 90 days in jail for "showing pornography" (!)).

A working-class couple barely out of their teens meet-up in postwar Stockholm, deliveryman Harry (Lars Ekborg) and greengrocer shopgirl Monika (Harriet Andersson) engage in a seemingly idyllic affair when the titular antiheroine begs him to take her away from her cramped home life for a carefree summer away in a far-off archipeligo in his father's motor boat. When she discovers she's pregnant, they retreat home to marry and settle down, only for her to grow quickly disillusioned with the reality of domestication.

Bergman's camera work and pace fits the tone that is simplistic and takes it own time with a lot of shots in and around and outside Stockholm courtesy of Gunnar Fischer's cinematography and the nearly two-hour run time. The acting leads very much embody that sense of young people unbound and the undoing of their relationship of Andersson's hunger to spend her misspent youth while she can up against Ekborg's sense of responsibility he slips into quite easily.

The film itself expresses the craving of a new freedom for the European baby boomer generation after a devasting war -- and a brutal occupation Sweden endured -- Bergman instills in Summer with Monika of that restlessness along with the Old World mannerisms that have long dissapeared since it was made, based on Per Anders Fogelstrom's 1951 novel, who also co-wrote the screenplay with the director. If there's any film to introduce oneself to for Bergman 100, this is the one makes for a good start.

***

Bergman 100: The Ingmar Bergman Centenary begins this Wednesday (October 24) at TIFF Lightbox (350 King Street West). For tickets and information, call 416-599-8433 or visit tiff.net.

EDITION #197 - WEEK OF OCTOBER 15-21, 2018

Space Race biopic stays orbital

First Man (Universal/DreamWorks)

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Abbot

Director: Damien Chazelle

Producers: Marty Bowen, Damien Chazelle, Wyck Godfrey and Isaac Klausner

Screenplay: Josh Singer; based on the James R. Hansen book

Film Review

Despite having been an actuality for over sixty years, space travel still feels rather new to us and with the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of humanity landing on the moon approaching, it helps to be reminded of that particular and momentous achievement that comes in the historical drama First Man, as praised at this year's TIFF; with Damien Chazelle (La La Land; Whiplash) helms a lot of emotional weight and plausible visual impact deftly.

Focused on pioneering astronaut Neil Armstrong (Gosling) as he starts out his career as a civilian X-15 test pilot out in the Mojave Desert in the early 1960s by sometimes scraping the edge of the atmosphere; which even Chuck Yeager (Matthew Glave), the first to break the sound barrier, would find as a reckless trait. But the aeronautical engineer had his own problems on the home front, what with raising a young family with wife Janet (Foy) and coping with the loss of his sickly daughter (Lucy Stafford) to cancer.

Relocating to Houston to begin training as a full-fledged astronaut in the Gemini program, it's an edgy time at NASA and for America as they feel bested by the Russians with their technological achievements going by leaps and bounds while they're still lagging behind throughout most of that decade. Armstrong is given commanding duties for the Apollo 11 moon mission, after his quick thinking saved the Gemini 8 mission from becoming a tragic one; he feels all the burdens that come with it both professionally and personally that he endures.

Chazelle shifts directorial gears in the structure of First Man after the bubbly, feel-good composition of La La Land for a darker, moody one for a human and realistic approach with quieter nuances that's more in the same realm of 1982's The Right Stuff than the approachable "can-do" Americanisms feel of Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures, with a few touches of Solaris (original 1971 version) and 2001: A Space Odyssey thrown in for good measure; as meticulously detailed by Tom Cross' editing and Linus Sandgren's cinematography.

The casting choice for the film are well chosen with Gosling playing Armstrong as he was, a solitary and humble individual just doing his job without a ego, compared to Corey Stoll's stellar performance as second-in-command Buzz Aldrin who is seen as ambitious and more forward and Lukas Haas as the reasonable, cautionary type; that should give him considerable notice come awards time as well as for Foy as the dutiful wife keeping the home fires burning and raising their kids without being treated like a background character.

Under its almost two-and-a-half-hour run, screenwriter Josh Singer gets a lot out of his adaptation of James R. Hansen's book in balancing between the public and the private side of Armstrong for First Man (worth seeing in IMAX format for the lunar landing scenes alone) as being the most honest Space Race film in ages for all its human frailties and its victories it achieves, much like this film does.

Enchanting washerwomen and delightful dervishes

Netherlander ballet troupe Introdans performs the Mahler-inspired Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Songs Of A Wayfarer) as part of Fall for Dance North 2018's second program at the Sony Centre.

Fall for Dance North 2018: Program 2 (Fall for Dance North/Sony Centre)

Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, 1 Front Street East

Friday, October 5; 7:30 p.m.

Dance Review

As modelled by its original counterpart run by the New York City Center since its inception in 2004, the fourth annual Fall for Dance North (FFDN) festival's second program mixture of local to international dance troupes held court at the Sony Centre was a even event offering a few good surprises by the familiar and unknown talents to grace the stage, that included the welcome return of the National Ballet of Canada to its former venue (more on that later) as one of its highlights for its October 5 performance.

Netherlander group Introdans started with Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Songs Of A Wayfarer) -- one of their two performances at FFDN 2018 -- as a neoclassical foundation, as choreographed by the legendary Jiri Kylian; divided by several duos on the theme of young love opening with the euphoria that it promises amidst against a darken backdrop, oddly enough, that changes moods courtesy of Kees Tjebbes and Jennifer Tipton's lighting along to Gustav Mahler's titular song cycle as neatly performed by the local Glen Gould School Orchestra and mezzo-soprano Georgia Burashko under conductor Ivars Taurins' baton.

In the four-movement structure, dramatics set in by the third movement before going into a deeper, mournful take by the fourth of love's demise by the ten-person ensemble by all the emo they portray. While Kylian's choreography is good and well-placed, it tends to fall into repetition in some parts that kind of put this number into the good, if not great category but not too shabby for the company's Canadian debut here.

Although it's been around in several incarnations since 2009, the Toronto-based Nicole Brooks/Asah Productions' latest take of Obeah Opera 2019 in retelling the Salem Witch trials from the African-Caribbean experience in presenting excerpts of what to expect. And for the most part, it was unexpectedly delightful as the second entry of the program.

Sung in a cappella by the all-female washerwomen ensemble surrounded by their head chieftain, their rhythmic choreography of handclaps and foot stomps matched their solid choral works of gospel, spiritual, opera and soul in several numbers where even the audience itself got caught up in it, including the soca-inspired highlight tune "Throw De Basket," that brought the house to its feet by performance's end. If this work-in-progress is what will be presented for next year's Luminato Festival, it's destined to be a sure-fire hit.

Presented earlier this summer at their Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts home, the National Ballet of Canada remounted the popular 2013 Justin Peck ballet Paz de la Jolla , based on his formative years in his native California for the program's third entry. This light and airy piece captured all the richness of adolescent playfulness and awkwardness, accompanied to their orchestra's performing Bohuslav Martinu's "Sinfonietta la Jolla, Op. H.328;" where duo Hannah Fischer and Harrison James portrayed a lusty, carefree romance in the second-movement duet whilst the ensemble pranced and frisked about in the brightly pastel shades in the swimsuit-like costuming of Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung that made it all the enjoyable.

Done in a fitful opening silence, the Franco-Arabic Compagnie Herve Koubi made a dazzling Toronto debut with What the Day Owes to the Night in their graceful concoction of Brazilian capoeira , martial arts, b-boying and contemporary dance moves on a misty-drenched stage by thirteen Algerian and Moroccan male dancers garbed in white Sufi-like pants that added to their dervish flowing choreography by company founder/director Herve Koubi.

Inspired by Algerian novelist Yasmina Khadira's titular work and combining the growing sounds of Bach and Mozart's operas with the haunting orchestrations and Arabic oud, excerpts from the original seventy-minute 2013 production remained powerful and enigmatic within its aesthetics to the point of avant-gardism so effortlessly through their leaps, spins and back flips in quartets and ensemble movements that has to be seen to be believed. As a most satisfying finish to FFDN's second program, I for one certainly hope that this company returns to Toronto in the near future on its own.

EDITION #196 - WEEK OF OCTOBER 1-7, 2018

Resurrecting Paradise

The Bloorcourt Art Deco movie house landmark undergoes major renovations for planned late 2018 reopening

Arts Feature

The local cinema was practically in almost every neighbourhood in major cities and in some cases, only one existed in at least a small town -- if one was lucky enough -- in providing information in the era of cinema newsreels as much as it did entertainment from the early twentieth century onward, as well as being a mainstay of the community in general.

Since the epochal arrivals of television, then multiplexes and nowadays online streaming in the last sixty-odd years, most of these places have long shuttered up, torn down and been reconverted into other business with a scant few surviving, like the Eglinton Grand on 400 Eglinton Avenue West as a private events venue, the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema near Bloor and Bathurst that's now the home to the annual Hot Docs Festival and exclusively running documentary staples or the smaller Revue Cinema down in the Roncesvalles area as a repertory cinema for example; with whatever is left of their dignity.

Such also was the fate of the Paradise Cinema, located at 1006 Bloor Street on the corner of Bloor and Westmoreland Avenue, which opened in 1937 and became a cornerstone hub of its area with its distinctive Art Deco and Art Moderne features, showing all the Hollywood Golden Era classics and Italian films for its local Italian populace four times in a given year, followed by arthouse features under the long-defunct Festival Cinemas chain and, for a brief period in the early 1980s, a adult film house as Eve's Paradise before finally closing its doors in 2006.

An artist's rendition of the newly-refurbished interior of the Paradise Cinema, set to open later on this year.

That's about to change after lying as a derelict for the last twelve years, thanks in part to a new owner who is currently returning it back to its former glory and have it up and operating sometime this fall. Under its new management, Paradise Cinema will not only run commercial, classic, foreign and artier fares with state-of-the-art technology like TIFF Lightbox does, it'll also be a multi-use, wheelchair-accessible venue for live music, comedy and talk series plus have its own bar and restaurant.

Paradise Cinema Director of Communications Sonya Williams at the Paradise Cinema media conference on July 28 at CSI Annex.

As stated in a media conference held early this summer at the Bathurst area CSI Annex, the management team hopes to restore the place not only as a entertainment hub, but as well as being a focus of communal gathering as it did in the old days. "Our vision," said their Director of Communications Sonya Williams, "is to bring people together and we'll execute our vision to provide hospitality first and to provide drink, food and performance. Paradise Cinema holds a two hundred and eighteen-seat theatre, with a balcony to where you can order dining to your seat; and offering a full-service restaurant on the main floor offering French and Italian cuisine and on the second floor will be a cocktail bar offering whisky sours and more."

"I've walked down this street [on Bloor] many times and there was a 'For Sale' sign on (Paradise Cinema) and it sort of tweaked back the memory of my childhood," new owner Moray Tawse explained. "My mother had to take two jobs [back then] and one of her jobs was at the Biltmore Theatre which was on Weston Road that looked exactly like this theatre did. And since it was cheaper than getting a babysitter [for me], I spent every Saturday and Sunday and Friday night at the theatre, to watch movies. Because for twenty-five cents, I got popcorn and a drink and did whatever I wanted to do in the twelve hours she had to be there," he reminisced with a chuckle.

Paradise Cinema's owner Moray Tawse at the Paradise Cinema media conference on July 28 at CSI Annex.

"But it really brings out the memories of the seeing some of these great, great old movies. I saw Ben Hur and its chariot race, seeing two of The Road movies with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, the Jerry Lewis movies. Back then, movies were a little bit different. You could sort of go in there whenever you wanted; they'd just continuously play three movies at a time or go halfway in and you'd sort of wait until you got to that period of time [of the film] where you'd seen that part already and you'd walk out," Tawse continued. "It was a period of the dancing hot dogs and the dancing drinks (ads) in those intermissions; it really, really resonates with me as a period of my time and for my love for the history of old buildings and cinema. So when I saw that [Paradise] building, I knew this was not a good idea, but I went over to see the realtor and went into it and I said, 'You know what? It could use just a little bit of paint here and maybe do something there; I could do something [with this place].'"

Getting the person to do such a task in maintaining its heritage-designated status while melding the new without turning it into some gaudy example by gutting its original interior and keeping the facade with a new-fangled property and so-calling it "restoration," went into the expertise hands of ERA Architects, specialists in heritage buildings; and the firm of Ware Malcomb who'll bring the building up to present-day standards and Solid Design Creative who have maintained the lobby area with its antique brass and mirrored ceilings surrounding the centrepiece concessions bar. Its design is a nod to the city with the island-style bar's brass tubing reminiscent of streetcars and in the spring of 2019, there is a planned lobby expansion into the building to the west.

An artist's rendition of the newly-refurbished interior of Paradise Cinema.

"In keeping with Paradise's history, we'll be returning back to life in showcasing a curious mix of films from both classic to contemporary," stated Director of Programming Jessica Smith, who has previously worked with Hot Docs and TIFF. "Paradise Theatre will also be providing an eclectic range of live performances which will be amplified by our state-of-the-art stage technology. Additionally, our programming will include talk series, comedy and a variety of other multi-arts events.

"To our own programming we'll plan in partnership with other outside cultural organizations, including a themed film festival. We will regularly host local talent both the established and emerging, as well as inviting international guests. Across the board we'll be offering content for all ages, from having family events to period-themed events," she further emphasized. "In following our values, our intention is to be as safe and welcoming in allowing our audiences to connect with one another, may they be authoritative, challenging or engaging."

Left-right: A nearby street bench with its brass plaques indicates how much the Paradise Cinema has meant to the Bloorcourt community since 1937.

Executive Chef Basilio Pesce, a Bloorcourt resident of many years standing and has worked in other restaurants around Toronto and in Vancouver; will be operating the cinema's Osteria Rialto restaurant with a mainly Italian menu and French staples and its upstairs bar, the Bar Biltmore; with a speciality in providing a locally sourced, ethically-sustained menu as possible, whilst mainly having fish and seafood from Canadian waters at the Biltmore and will include vegetarian and vegan options.

"I've always loved the theatre itself, I saw a lot of potential in it," Pesce said. "I loved the architectural design and its details and I'm excited to be a part of the project. My food philosophy is very, very simple and very approachable, apart from creating perfect dishes. I wanted to create a place where people can come a few times a week.

"So what can you expect? In the concessions in the theatre (area), obviously there will be popcorn, that certainly is a must. There'll be retro candy bars and chips, sandwiches and soft drinks, wine and beer and alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. There will be in-seat dining in the balcony seats themselves, which will have a substantial offering in the menu."

"So what we're trying to do here with Paradise is move forward into the next generation. There's new people living in the area and we want to be a community theatre. What does that mean? That means something different to everybody here, but to me it means that the people in our community can come to our theatre and have a vast array of experiences," Tawse continued. "Where we have great dining, a really nice bar; you have a drink and really nice food, see all walks of entertainment and not just movies, but live music, book readings and basically it's all community-based interests because it's community when you're there and it's close to where you're from.

"I'm really, really excited about it. I think Paradise will be a really remarkable place, we've worked really, really hard on it," he concludes. "We've had some of the best designers, architects and anyone who's had a hand in creating this and we've really tried to make this a unique and special place for people to come to."

***

For more information, visit paradiseonbloor.com

Kingmaker drama reigns supreme

Coriolanus (Stratford Festival/ Ex Machina)

Avon Theatre, 99 Downie Street, Stratford

Sunday, September 30; 2 p.m.

Theatre Review

STRATFORD, ONTARIO -- If Julius Caesar is Shakespeare's treatise on the fall of the Roman Empire and the world's first failed attempt at an established and stable democracy (as it were), then his lesser-shown play Coriolanus is showing the Empire at its birth pangs with a sketchier democratic rule. As directed and designed by world-renown dramaturge Robert Lepage, it's done more as a cautionary tale of how dictators rise and executed such momentous flow and structure.

In the early days of their Empire, the Romans most fearless general Caius Martius (Andre Sills) returns to Rome after a recently successful campaign in crushing their Volscian enemies in Corioles, while the city-state is in the midst of a food shortage crisis and the natives are getting restless over their leaders' inaction to resolve it. For his victorious conquest and long, dedicated service to the Empire, the Senate under his friend Menenius Agrippa (Tom McCamus) bestow him the honorific title of Coriolanus.

Encouraged by his high society mother Volumnia (Lucy Peacock), family and friends to run for office, the hot-tempered solider absolutely refuses to act with any sense of humility for the masses to whom he holds such contemptuous distaste for, especially by those who protest the Senate with their hoarding of food that perpetrated the crises beforehand and the feeling among the populace towards him is mutual; albeit a few. When Sicinius Velutus (Tom Rooney) and his right-hand Junius Brutus (Stephen Ouimette) decide to quash Coriolanus' sudden rise, he bitterly rebels against his former leaders who have warily eyed his ambitions that seem to border on a possible iron-fisted rule.

Set within a modern-day context, Lepage's adaptation is nothing short of stupendous in his mix of video and sliding stage fixtures -- a trademark of his -- through his creative usage of space as made with Ariane Sauve's set and props designs and Laurent Routhier's stage lighting in the two-part, two-hour run of Coriolanus that feels so epic-like in such a tightly compacted venue as the Avon Theatre to give it more intimacy, yet it works here through the backroom power plays to Rome's decadent underbelly exposed.

The play's three majors carry the play with such dramatis, with Sills brilliantly sneering as the incendiary lead consumed in a mad power rush that swells his head; McCamus as the logical if witty kingmaker who sees the ugly monster he helped create and now must bring him down much to his reluctance and Peacock shines in every scene she's in as the overly-driven, mollycoddling mother.

Coriolanus' message of the corruption of power is so reflective of the now and that it almost falls into a political satire, if only some of the characters didn't always seem to be channelling a few real-life figures out there that it is almost a bit frighteningly accurate to a point. But then again, that is the genius behind Lapage's constructive theatre to bring such things to debate on where we truly are in an oft-times fragile democracy, which could just as easily fall as the Romans had.

***

Coriolanus continues through November 3. For tickets and information, call 1-800-567-1600 or visit stratfordfestival.ca

EDITION #195 - WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 24-30, 2018

Kid-friendly horror-com magically delights

The House with a Clock in Its Walls (Universal)

Cast: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan

Director: Eli Roth

Producers: Bradley J. Fischer, Eric Kripke and James Vanderbilt

Screenplay: Eric Kripke; based on the John Bellairs novel

Film Review

Long before Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events), R.L. Stine (Goosebumps) and Deborah and James Howe (Bunnicula) penned their own juvenile horror/fantasy stories, there was a critically-acclaimed genius named John Bellairs who ruled that niche market in the 1970s and '80s until dying youngish at 53 in 1991 and is barely remembered now except at the local library holding his works. The House with a Clock in Its Walls the first-ever attempt at a major cinematic adaptation of his 1973 classic; goes out to correct this in a rather delightful and thrilling manner.

Recently orphaned Lewis Barnavelt (Vaccaro) is sent to live with his uncle Jonathan (Black) that he barely knows in 1955 New Zebedee, Michigan after his parents are killed in a car accident. Already being a bookish type trying to fit in the fifth grade in a new town and school and longing for his mother (Lorenza Izzo), it's bad enough that he finds his only surviving relative quite oddly eccentric living in this kind of creepy old home that makes the Addams Family house look like a bachelor condo space with no set of rules (except for one) and right next door is his neighbour and pal Florence Zimmerman (Blanchett) who's just as strange and both live to hurl friendly barbs at each other.

When Jonathan reveals that he's secretly a warlock who dabbles in magic and the occult as well as Florence does as a witch, Lewis begs him to take him on as an apprentice which in a short while finds he has the knack for it, if not yet the spirit in it. On a dare to impress cool kid Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic) to raise the dead, he breaks the only rule his uncle laid out and unwittingly resurrects Isaac Izard (MacLachlin), a all-powerful dark wizard and former best friend of Jonathan's; who sets out to finish off the spell that sent him to his grave that now only the three of them can stop.

At first it felt kind of weird for Eli Roth (2018's Death Wish remake) who is better known for making grindhouse-styled fright flicks like his Hostel series and Cabin Fever to all suddenly do a family-friendly film such as this one. But he's so clearly in his wheelhouse here making it as a sort-of tribute to those fantasy-horror staples so abundant back in the 1980s with a whiff of sentiment whilst maintaining its spooking element, humour and pace with a clever screen treatment by screenwriter/co-producer Eric Kripke of Bellairs' award-winning book.

Jack Black is a absolute natural being the free-living guardian uncle who is so unsure of himself in looking after his young ward-turned-student and playing an amateur detective of sorts in between with all his comedic talent shining like a younger John Candy. Lewis is well acted by Vaccaro embodying a child faced with tragedy too early for his years plus coping with peer pressure feeling real here; Blanchett returning to light fantasy again as a witch with her own painful past whom she instantly shares a bond with Lewis, as well as being a decent comic foil equal to Black.

While MacLachlin's role as the film's tragic villain is very limiting to ever stand out by any means, The House with a Clock in Its Walls holds its own through Nathan Barr's score that's in par to anything John Williams could have composed and Marlene Stewart's period costuming with its laughs, old-school thrills and semi-dark chills as a fun, magical delight for all ages.

Jai Ho! Lit fest reveals its 39th edition and undergoes a re-branding

Left-right: First Nations music icon Buffy Sainte-Marie and Indian diplomat/author Vikas Swarup will both make their way to Harbourfront Centre's newly-renamed literary festival, Toronto International Festival of Authors come October

Toronto International Festival of Authors 2018 Preview

After almost four decades, Harbourfront Centre's autumnal literary gathering previously known as the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) decided to undergo a name change to reflect on the city it serves back in the springtime -- and maybe as a possibly obvious riff on its mega-cinematic rival, TIFF -- and is now called the Toronto International Festival of Authors or TIFA, as it made its most recent reveal of its line-up for next month's (October 18-28) annual bibliophile convergence in free and ticketed events.

"Toronto International Festival of Authors has strived to connect curious readers with the world's leading writers and thought-leaders, to celebrate storytelling and its critical role in helping us make sense of the modern world," said long-time Toronto International Festival of Authors Artistic Director Geoffrey Taylor. "With a roster of emerging and established artists, activists, authors and poets from around the world speaking on everything from Indigenous authorship to understanding gender and cultural diversity, we are proud to present curated events featuring some of today's most riveting writing on stage right here in Toronto."

Boasting of its eleven-day run with 60 events and attended by approximately 200 authors from nearly 30 countries, it certainly does have much to crow about for this year with some blockbuster events, starting with the legendary Cree singer-songwriter/activist/educator Buffy Sainte-Marie and acclaimed biographer Andrea Warner, co-authors of Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography , who will also interview alongside her latest subject where both will reflect on their careers and their biographer-subject relationship with CBC Music host Raina Douris set to moderate the double interview at the Fleck Dance Theatre on October 27.

The line-up also celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the Man Booker Prize Award with past winners Roddy Doyle (October 18), who is making up for cancelling his previously-scheduled appearance from last year and Marlon James (October 27); Canadian author Esi Edugyan along with fellow author Meg Wolitzer (October 27); New York Times bestselling author Madeline Miller (October 28) promoting Circe, her latest and anticipated release; Scottish crime writer and Order of the British Empire recipient Ian Rankin with Canada's Linwood Barclay (October 23); Can-Lit stars Randy Boyagoda and Rawi Hage (October 26) doing a double interview on each others' works that have involved tragic themes and deal with issues of religion and crises of faith; Miriam Toews (October 19), discussing her latest book, Women Talking, which challenges our thinking about women and men in our contemporary world; double-interviewing First Nations authors Governor General Award-winning Metis writer Cherie Dimaline and Eden Robinson (October 24), whose highly-acclaimed Son of a Trickster was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and CBC Radio personality Eleanor Wachtel brings her annual Writers & Company fest broadcast (October 27) interviewing acclaimed Hungarian author, translator, dramatist and visual artist Andras Forgach about his new novel, The Acts of My Mother.

Safar: Journeys to South Asia (October 21) has Indian authors Arif Anwar, Amulya Malladi, Manjushree Thapa and Rahul Varma talk about their writing and how the South Asian community inspires their stories with Shree Paradkar will moderate the segment. Then after a brief intermission, author Anirudh Bhattacharyya interviews the new High Commissioner of India to Canada, Vikas Swarup. Swarup is an author and diplomat who formerly served as the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs of India and wrote Q&A , which inspired the 2008 TIFF People's Choice and Academy Award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. Both programmes are hosted by CBC Radio host Teenaz Javat and curated by Meenakshi Alimchandani.

After a year-long absence, the free child-lit event Book Bash is back at this year's Toronto International Festival of Authors on October 20 filled with readings and activities.

Other events include the inaugural Mystery Library (October 22 and 27), where TIFA attendees are encouraged to listen to a line-up of authors and grab a free book from the Festival's mystery library in the West Wing of Union Station (65 Front Street East); a couple of publishing houses marking milestones with Guernica 40th Anniversary (October 27) with refreshments, a cash bar and exciting door prizes, plus the winner of the 2018 Guernica Prize for Literary Fiction will also be announced, Kegedonce 25th Anniversary (October 21) with a number of Kegedonce authors, including Richard Van Camp and Joanne Arnott in attendance and Nimbus 40th Anniversary Kitchen Party (October 24) with a reception celebrates the company's 40th anniversary with on-site giveaways, refreshments and a cash bar.

And European writers are spotlighted in the EUNIC Reading & Reception (October 21) and Celebrating Poland (October 24) on the centennial anniversary of Poland's modern-day independence with a gathering of three of that nation's top authors, Jakub Malecki, Dorota Maslowska and Jakub Zulczyk, in a panel discussion and following reception and the return of Book Bash (October 20), the Toronto Public Library-sponsored children's literature festival event with some of Canada's best-known kid-lit authors and illustrators for a fun-filled afternoon of activities for kids that celebrate Canadian books, promoting literacy and make reading fun.

***

Tickets now on sale. For more information, call 416-973-4000 or visit festivalofauthors.ca .

Local major dance fest goes Californian dreamin' with pantsula movers and Mahler

The National Ballet of Canada's Paz de la Jolla and their orchestra is part of this year's Fall For Dance North line-up coming in October.

Dance Preview

Since its very first season in 2015, Fall For Dance North has steadily grown to become Toronto's premier dance festival with its mandate to not only nurture and expose the diversity of dance by established and rising companies from around the city, but also from across Canada and the world, and this year is no exception as the fourth edition of the fest expands to an additional new venue at Ryerson Theatre (43 Gerrard Street East) along with co-presenter Sony Centre (1 Front Street East) and offering free afternoon programming at Union Station (65 Front Street East).

This year's Fall For Dance North (FFDN) begins from October 2 to 6 with all the action mainly happening at Sony Centre with the first two programmes starting with the official festival opener line-up October 3-4 with First Nations troupe Red Sky Performance's remount of last year's Adizokan , heralded for its artful integration of dance, film and musical elements including Indigenous vocals and electro-acoustic and orchestral music by Canadian composer Eliot Britton, along with special guests the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra. This special FFDN edition focuses on contemporary and traditional dance components choreographed by Jera Wolfe, Sandra Laronde and Michel Bruyere, using movement to mount a fascinating exploration of Indigenous connections to ancestral origins.

The rubber-boned South African hip-hop dance team Soweto Skeleton Movers are back in town with an encore presentation of Seven for Fall For Dance North.

Montreal's Compagnie Marie Chouinard has the company founder-choreographer revisiting her forty years of dance works with excerpts from their offering Radical Vitality, Solos and Duets ; Cuban ensemble Los Hijos Del Director/George Cespedes making their Canadian debut at FFDN with their techno disco-driving La Tribulacion De Anaximandro (Hombre, Arche, Apeiron) and the triumphant return of the Soweto Skeleton Movers, as the pantsula pranksters from South Africa who made a splash at Breakin' Convention Toronto 2017 at Luminato redo their high-energy hit Seven.

Local West Indian dance troupe Obeah Opera brings back their critically-acclaimed 2015 PanAm Games Arts Festival production Seven for Fall For Dance North, with new choreographic moves.

Program 2 (October 5-6) has Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Songs Of A Wayfarer) by the Netherlands' Introdans adapting a series of duets to the titular Gustav Mahler composition with a modern twist accompanied by a live orchestration by ten musicians and a soloist from The Glenn Gould School at The Royal Conservatory; local Afro-Caribbean ensemble Obeah Opera 2019 revamps their 2015 PanAm Games Arts Festival production with all-new choreography retells the narrative of the Salem witch trials through the eyes of Caribbean slave women, as performed by a powerful all-female cast with a live a cappella score; The National Ballet of Canada's Paz de la Jolla by New York City Ballet choreographer Justin Peck's creation of a buoyant and beachy coming-of-age tribute to his Californian home state and the Franco-Arabic hip-hop dance posse Compagnie Herve KOUBI bringing the Torontonian premiere of What The Day Owes to the Night, based on Algerian author Yasmina Khadra's 2008 novel and company founder Koubi's personal exploration of his roots.

Red Sky Performance's 2017 production Adizokan gets a remount for Fall For Dance North with the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra.

And for its third program (October 2 and 4), the cabaret-styled RITE/a flamenco ceremony by Myriam Allard and her Montreal company La Otra Orilla makes its Toronto premiere; Introdans' second and special offering is the Canadian premiere of their minimalist production,Canto Ostanato; the FFNB-commissioned Counter Cantor as created and performed by fest veteran Anne Plandon collaborates with Canadian-born, Los Angeles-based choreographer for Justin Bieber's world tours Emma Portner, and the Ballet Kelowna's tongue-in-cheeky ode to postwar jazz tunes, MAMBO.

Also currently running at Union Station's West Wing until October 4; the festival brings back Union Dance, the ten-day preview series featuring four free presentations of works by Compagnie Marie Chouinard, a live tango milonga performance, Toronto-based tap company Toffan Rhythm Projects and the two-day Open Studio sneak peeks of rehearsals by local and FFDN participants.

"Last year, with our addition of free Union Station programming, we brought dance into the lives of more citizens than ever before. This year we will do so again, adding Ryerson Theatre to our list of venues and welcoming thousands more into the FFDN community," says Ilter Ibrahimof, FFDN Artistic Director. "While we are a young organization, we are immensely proud of the support, trust and following we have built with our patrons to date. This year, new and returning audiences will be treated to a host of milestone firsts for the festival: a spectacular contribution from New York City Ballet Resident Choreographer Justin Peck; a world premiere commissioned by FFDN from Anne Plamondon and Emma Portner; and an endless array of evocative, engaging and exquisite artistic surprises."

***

For tickets and information, call Sony Centre 416-368-6161 or visit sonycentre.ca or ffdnorth.com .

EDITION #194 - WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 17-23, 2018

Fellini-esque Corteo returns

Cirque du Soleil's festive funereal masterpiece comes back to Toronto in December

Theatre Preview

It's kind of a cynical cliche that death is a mysterious journey that we all mostly fear, yet remain so curious about. Is it really just a fade-to-black darkness, a spiritual re-evaluation of how we lived -- or didn't live -- or is there something beyond that exit door that we all must face?

Cirque du Soleil won't give any of those answers straight, but it most certainly will make one delight in the prospective afterlife when their masterpiece show Corteo makes its long, long-awaited return to the Toronto area at Scotiabank Arena (40 Bay Street; formerly Air Canada Centre) this Christmas season for a brief holiday run.

The show is a joyous procession reminiscent of a Frederico Fellini film that's being imagined by a clown (who may be) facing his own mortality as his circus troupe of friends and colleagues plunges one into the theatrical world of Corteo , which is "cortege" in Italian; with a fun sense of comedy and spontaneity as well as some human dramatics situated in a mysterious space between heaven and earth while bringing together the passion of the acting arts with the grace and power of their acrobatics.

Making its debut in its Grand Chapiteau format in 2005 at its Montreal hometown, the Quebecois neo-circus troupe hired the revered Italian-Swiss dramaturge Daniele Finzi Pasca, whose work goes back thirty years since he formed his theatrical company Teatro Sunil, and later on Compagnia Finzi Pasca with his late wife Julie Hamelin Finzi (who also created their second show for Cirque, the dazzling Mexican-flavoured LUZIA in 2016), plus did several productions for Cirque Eloize in the 2000s; to create a show that addressed such a nadir and taboo subject like death without making it morbid for its audiences.

After a decade-long road trip under the big top where it entertained to over eight million people in sixty cities and nineteen countries worldwide to packed houses and rave reviews, it was once feared amongst its fans that because of its own stage complexity -- especially with its highly unique roll drop curtain exquisitely done in a Baroque watercolour painting style, courtesy of set designer Jean Rabisse -- and certain acts, the show would never get a arena remount as they've successfully managed to accomplish with all their past productions once it retired its Grand Chapiteau run in 2015.

"[When] we decided to convert Corteo from a Big Top show into an arena show, we had some restraints placed upon the process," said Arena Tour Artistic Director Mark Shaub. "The [average] structure of the arena, the way the stage and upper part of the deck is supported is different from the Big Top. In the Big Top we used to have a high-wire act but the arena structure could not support the tension required to bring a high-wire into tension. And so we wanted to find a way to have another aerial act in the show. [So the] Suspended Pole is a dance pole that is normally planted in the ground, but this pole is able to 'fly' and with our dolly system it's not only able to fly up and down, but it can also transport across the stage.

"So it was an exciting prospect for us to work with this act because no other Cirque du Soleil show has a Suspended Pole (other than Amaluna 's aerial Chinese Pole act and their soon-to-be retiring Soda Stereo tribute production, Sep7imo Dia). So (the aerial acrobat's) character is much more than a young woman discovering her life in the circus and discovering her womanhood in a way. We've been working with Stephanie (Ortega) now and we've created a really beautiful act."

"The other act we've added is Hoops and that's working with, you know, a series of hoops in the later part of the First Act," Shaub continues. "And what we've done is we've brought back one of the trampo beds, put a platform on it where (the artist) can do her combination of contortion and Hoops footwork and we've surrounded her by some of the characters in the show. Her personage is more like kind of a gypsy woman -- she's all in red, very fiery -- it's a tango type of music [playing in the background] and she has The Whistler on there and the White Clown, who's infatuated with her. The Giant is there, and the Giant and The Whistler who is Mr. Loyal, our ringmaster -- they are kind of sambaing away and dancing away with her -- and different people are bringing her the hoops.

"It's a very short act but it's beautiful, so we're very happy with the results," he concludes. "We think it's added a whole new layer to Corteo -- a familiar layer in the sense of the music, but a new type of acrobatics that we didn't have before."

***

Corteo performs for a limited Toronto engagement at Scotiabank Arena (formerly Air Canada Centre) December 12-16. For tickets and information, call 1-888-212-4183 or visit cirquedusoleil.com.

Quintessential Q doc and one bizarrely tasty colonial Cake!

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 Reviews

Part 2 of a 2-part series

Quincy

TIFF Lightbox, 350 King Street West

Tuesday, September 11; 12:15 p.m.

The Netflix-produced documentary Quincy on the extraordinary life, times and legacy of Quincy Jones is a major, major improvement over the last doc made on the renowned American music producer/arranger/musician/humanitarian, Listen Up! The Lives of Quincy Jones back in 1990 was more like a slicked, over-commercialized promo piece for his Back on The Block album of that same year with not much heart. As co-directed by Jones' daughter Rashida Jones and Australian musician/filmmaker Alan Hicks (Keep On Keepin' On), there’s a more personal touch here and deeper depth of the man to able to really reflect on his life that was missing in the aforementioned doc.

It covers a wide gamut from his hardscrabble days surviving Depression-era Chicago on the rough South side (talking about survival is not an exaggeration -- this guy took an ice pick to the skull once in a fight!), dealing with his schizophrenic mother who'd been institutionalized when he was seven and later moving out to Seattle in 1940 with his father and younger brother just to escape from her.

A break-in at a warehouse and coming across a piano forever changed his destiny one night during his juvenile delinquency period and music became -- and still is -- his salvation spanning seven decades from working with the creme de la creme of 20th-century American talent, from the bebop icons of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie to the hip-hop masters of the present; the pursuit of his own work in scoring and producing films and the main man in the control booth behind USA For Africa, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson.

The film mostly centers around his arranging a star-studded concert for the opening of the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. in 2015, where he still is a mover and shaker in the business from getting not only his celebrity pals and associates together, but only political ones as well, as a personal cause for him and his passion of mentoring up-and-coming young talent.

At a hefty two-hour run time, Quincy goes beyond than just some "talking head" project that took about six years to make with three of them just following the man, now at 85, to over twenty-four countries worldwide in that period and continues to have this endless stamina and drive that would outdo most people just half his age. But it also shows, at times quite alarmingly, his body and health isn't in sync as it was back then miraculously manages to bounce right back, more or less.

The filmmakers do a more than remarkable job doing over 800 hours of footage plus combing over 2,000 hours from Jones' own personal archives -- most that have never been seen before, including himself; plus private home movies -- and (of course, soulful classic hits peppering the soundtrack from "Bossa Nova Samba" to "Give Me The Night") a pretty honest examination of his personal life from genuine love he has for his children, issues with his mentally-ill mother that still haunts him and workaholic behaviour (and a self-admitted philanderer) that took a toll on his three marriages and other relationships.

One thing that overshadows his incredible success and the film itself, is the emotional overload he feels whenever he reminiscences over old friends now long gone, especially over Jackson (who he still calls him by the unusual nickname, "Smelly"), Sinatra (whom he owes a lot to his career) and most of all, Ray Charles (the clip of his shaky serenade on piano during Jones' Kennedy Center Honors in 2001, is a real heart-tugger).

Quincy is the quintessential music documentary of the year for any Jones fan that will see a lot more of the man as the consummate showbiz survivor that still commands a highly-respected influence on young and old from all walks of life from his actions to his philosophies on life itself, as one see with the deep one-on-one chat he has with hip-hop superstar Kendrick Lamar; and so will this film command the viewers' attention, too. Highly recommended.

***

Quincy premieres on Netflix this Friday (September 21). For more information, visit netflix.com.

The Mercy of the Jungle

Scotiabank Cinema, 259 Richmond Street West

Tuesday, September 11; 6:45 p.m.

French and Swahili with English subtitles

Acclaimed Rwandan filmmaker Joel Karekezi's (Imbabzi - The Pardon) war survivalist drama The Mercy of the Jungle is a interesting choice case for his second feature as not so much an examination of what the nature of war does to and for people, but how conflict can bring out the good as well as it does the bad in humanity which is a rather unique and rare property to bring to a film such as this.

Set during the Rwanda-Congo border wars circa 1998, career soldier Sergeant Xavier (Stephane Bak) and Private Faustin (Marc Zinga) from the Rwandan 23rd Battalion get accidentally separated from their unit during an overnight operation in hunting down fugitive Genocide perpetrators. Lost and alone in enemy territory, the two men battle thirst, hunger, jungle foliage, illness and the elements as much as they do with any rebel faction that's lying in waiting.

As a comradeship builds over the duration, Faustin speaks of returning back to his pregnant wife while Xavier is consumed with remorse of living a life that leaves nothing but death and destruction behind and can't seem to find the inner peace he seeks that almost drives him to the point of insanity.

Karekezi loosely based this film on a cousin's personal accounts in the Rwandan army in a above average manner as co-written with Aurelien Bodinaux and Casey Schroen with a pacing that, more often than not, doesn't stand out so much compared to other war films however it does seems to work that particular trait to its own advantage.

The main characters as portrayed by Zinga playing the leader whose battle-toughened facade slips over the timeframe little by little to reveal a completely haunted soul looking for redemption and Bak having certain innocence hanging around Faustin; once were both gun-ho patriots defined by the horrible tragedy that was the 1994 Rwandan Genocide; would rather go back to the simple farm life he left behind.

The Mercy of the Jungle is a humanistic undercurrent mix of finding desperation, friendship and charity in the war zone, as it does with the realistic aura of reality -- with a brief touch of geopolitical explanations -- that is all the more universal connectivity Karekezi embosses that hopefully will follow him onto future projects.

Short Cuts Programme 8

Scotiabank Cinema, 259 Richmond Street West

Tuesday, September 11; 9:30 p.m.

Probably one of the darkest arrangement of shorts TIFF has put together since I've started seeing their Short Cuts programmes over the years, the eighth programme in this year's contingent started with All These Creatures from Australian writer/director Charles Williams about the disintegration of one man's mental state as seen from his tween son's (Yared Scott) point-of-view from his father's (Mandela Mathia) obsession of a alleged insect infestation of their home and what it does to his family -- and his own fears that it may become hereditary.

As bleak as it sounds and looks courtesy of Adric Watson's cinematography and Chiara Costanza's visceral score, Williams puts a sensitive and gentle perspective in addressing mental health issues that doesn't have a glib happy ending to it, but it never leaves any glint of hopelessness for the protagonist and the viewer to walk away from.

The Trinidadian-Canadian project Caroni sees an Indo-Caribbean nanny (Arianna Ruben) living and working in New York away from her young daughter (Seema Singh) back home and missing out on her life but connected through their fondness for the scarlet ibis, Trinidad's national bird; and her deepening loneliness she feels of wanting to come home in time for the little girl's birthday.

While those themes are so fully prevalent, co-writer/director Ian Harnarine also focuses on the plight of hundreds of women from across the West Indies who must seek employment abroad to support their families and having to sacrifice precious time for the betterment of themselves treads on a lightweight pace and storyline in its eight-minute run.

York University film student Sofia Bohdanowicz puts a docu-fictional twist to Veslemoy's Song about her grandfather's violin teacher Kathleen Parlow, an exceptionally talented musician who once was revered in Canada back in the 1920s and '30s, but now long forgotten to history as she goes to find out more about the artist and her family's link to her in a grainy, artsy black-and-white fashion through photos and footage sequences; that includes a New York pilgrimage to find Parlow's only surviving phonographic recording from 1909, is visually lushful watching.

From Indonesia comes The Ballad of Blood and Two White Buckets was the odd-one out of a husband and wife (Muhammad Abe, Ruth Marini) eke out a living by making and selling cow blood pudding -- in avoidance of using pig's blood that is forbidden in Islam -- on the roadside from sanctioned slaughterhouses, while the wife is slowly succumbing to some illness that makes her (ironically) cough up blood.

Weighed down by its own sluggish pace, even with a side commentary about the country's religious divides between Christians and Muslims meant to be as a metaphor; Yosep Anggi Noen's direction can't get past the film's strained subtleness to reach its projected potential lying there.

A muse of an Hitchcockian experimental film by Guy Madden, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson, Accidence catches the everyday experience of seeing life viewed from a series of apartment balconies and the lives of its occupants whilst focusing on the central character of a bandaged-up man. Done to the music of Ensign Broderick's Brian Eno-esque eponymous composition, the filmmakers take a Groundhog Day -like concept into an eccentrically interesting study of the human condition on how we have so much commonality, yet we're so incredibly alone.

Turning the infamous Scramble for Africa into a surrealist comedy-drama would seem incredibly daunting, but the fest's IWC Short Cuts Best Short Award honourable mention This Magnificent Cake! does succeed in that respect Belgian animators Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels make into this solid commentary on the really ugly human nature of conquest in five interconnected stories of Belgian colonialists and the African populace.

What makes it more interesting, besides some of its more bizarre montages from a King Leopold II's watery nightmare on getting his fair "slice" of the continent to a army deserter's journey into finding a exiled baker in the jungles of the Congo all done in stop-motion felt figures; is that it manages to skip any political context, especially when it comes to facing their own sordid colonialist past that still resonates today. May be a bit of a challenge for some used to getting their animated kicks straightforward, but the very least it is a thought-provoking piece for others to delve into.

FESTIVAL SUMMARY

Keeping things to a minimum for me this year, TIFF still continues to be a momentous task even at a small(er) level and enjoyable for the most part. Only a couple of sticking points: firstly, why wasn't there a proper mention for Alfonso Cuaron's ROMA photo exhibit -- based on his acclaimed semi-autobiographical festival offering -- at TIFF Lightbox that wasn't even on its website? It would have made an interesting companion piece for those who had or contemplated seeing the film in question.

And secondly, the idea for holding the People's Choice Winner screening of the period drama Green Book (surprising and upsetting the buzz-worthy contenders First Man, A Star Is Born and the aforementioned ROMA) at TIFF Lightbox on September 16 was definitely not the fest's best, when everybody was more than content to see it at Roy Thomson Hall despite the usual lengthy snaky line-up for it. It's good to do a shake-up out of the ordinary every now and then, but let's hope this was just a one-time deal and it'll return back to Roy Thomson next year (or better yet, extend to both locations in the Festival Village).

EDITION #193 - WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 10-16, 2018

Semi-dark comic cowgirl blazes the trail

Coyote Doggirl

by Lisa Hanawalt

156 pp., Drawn & Quarterly/Raincoast Books

Hardcover, $24.95

Graphic Novel and Comics/Western

Book Review

Much like its cinematic counterpart, the comic book Western is a rarity within its own genre and not because from a lack of trying. But at least one author is willing to give it a try in Coyote Doggirl, as created by award-winning cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt that puts a smile on readers' faces as a semi-dark, humorous homage to the classic frontier adventures.

Told in an anthropomorphic fashion, the half-wolf/half-dog frontier woman Coyote Doggirl rides along the lone prairies with her faithful horse Red, spending her days on her ranch making a quiet living as a tannery expert with a unique collection of knifes she knows her way with. Tough as the leather clothing she fashions herself -- including her underwear -- she is pursued by a trio of bad dogs, whose leader is out to get payback for what she did to his brother in a brazen act of self-defence.

Wounded and left to die in the desert afterwards by stealing her horse, Coyote is rescued by a Indigenous lupine tribe who nurse her back to health and reconnect her fighting spirit as she pines for her beloved quadruped in the coming days. Once recovered, she's out on the trail to get Red back from the bandits and dole out her brand of frontier justice, unbeknownst to herself that her old life will never be the same.

Done in a childlike-style, Hanawalt moulds out a revisionist revenge tale that is as modestly bold (if short), artfully funny and enlivening, added with its own sense of psychedelic surrealism done with every brushstroke imbued in her artwork. If the satire looks and feels familiar, it rightfully should as it is created by the producer and production designer of the sensational adult animated Netflix series BoJack Horseman.

She writes the eponymous heroine with a contemporary feminist vein coursing through her found in the spirit of related classics of Hannie Caulder, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts and Kill Bill that make the plot more than just a "woman and her horse" story stripped of any innocence that may lurk through these pages and just as violent as any gunslinger story. However, it does cheat a bit in the cutesy department with a two-page mini-story "Pony Love" that is a whole lot lighter.

As simplistic and uncomplicated a story it is, Coyote Doggirl gets along with its subversive tale of loss, vengeance and adult humour told with vividly colourful and textured watercolours, it's a interesting read for those longing to get a hold of a Western that can speak to today's audience.

***

The fifth season premiere of BoJack Horseman streams on Netflix this Friday (September 14). For more information, visit netflix.com.

Cinematic sisters do it for themselves at TIFF 18

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 Reviews

Part 1 of a 2-part series

Girls of The Sun

TIFF Lightbox, 350 King Street West

Saturday, September 8; 9:15 a.m.

French and Kurdish with English subtitles and English

One of the poisonous offshoots of the Arab Spring was the unexpected and unfortunate rise of Daesh, or known commonly as the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS), who first spread their terror in the result of the Syrian Revolution around the region before they started aiming at Western cities with hit-and-run attacks. With Eva Husson's gritty second feature and this year's Cannes darling Girls of The Sun, a fictionalized account of the Kurdish women militia units who went to do battle with them, it's a auspicious and harrowing war film that stands on its own quite fiercely and proudly so.

The film is actually the story of two women: the seemingly fearless Iraqi Yazidi platoon leader Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani), a former lawyer leading a group of young ladies who like herself were the victims of Daesh's rampage on their hometown and shattering their lives a year earlier, haunted by the loss of most of her family members through rape, torture and murder and clinging to the desperate hope of finding her young son who'd been abducted into becoming their next generation of fighters.

The other is Mathilde H. (Emmanuel Bercot), a French war correspondent covering the offensive in 2015 Northern Kurdistan from Daesh, who has her own personal demons to conquer within that she hopes to find in tagging along with Bahar's unit that on the surface seems more like suicidal than a cathartic measure.

Writer/director Husson (Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story)) doesn't spare any of the fear, tension and horrors of combat, with reminiscent scenery done in past war films like Full Metal Jacket or Saving Private Ryan; with a perspective seen through a woman's eyes, be it enduring the indignities of being a sex slave to battle-hardened vets not afraid to lay down their lives and are just as frustrated with war room politics by ineffective commanders who'd rather wait for a Coalition air strike to soften up their enemy than confront them in action on the frontline.

Both Farahani and Bercot play their parts well as members of a unique if not unusual sisterhood who know the pangs of sacrifice, a hint at revenge and a yearning for a normal life Husson expresses with her tight-end script -- and two years of thorough research put into this film -- punctured with Mattias Troelstrup's cinematography and Morgan Kibby's highly thematic score setting the moods right where it's needed.

Girls of the Sun (as taken from the emblem from the Iraqi Kurdistan flag) isn't that bold of a standout from any other war film out there one can find but it is just as moving and inspiring from seeing these brave women risking everything, be it by choice or circumstance, while both look to rely on each other in a world gone mad.

Widows

Visa Screening Room at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King Street West

Sunday, September 9; 10:30 a.m.

Just when director and TIFF regular Steve McQueen couldn't possibly outdo himself, especially after his People's Choice- and Academy Award-winning 12 Years A Slave a few years back; he does it again with Widows and it's quite fair to say that it is the best heist film to come out since The Good Thief with its star-studded cast and competent script surging through this high-octane thriller.

Professional Chicago thief Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) and his two-man crew set out to do a job that goes horribly wrong in a hail of police bullets one night, leaving their families shattered -- and straddled with a $2 million debt evenly owed to two ambitious politicians locked in an heated election campaign, the affluential incumbent Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) wanting to maintain his seat and family dynasty and his gangster opponent Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) looking to usurp it and establish his own brand of power.

Threatened to come up with the money before election day, Harry's wife Veronica (Viola Davis) reluctantly forms a alliance with his fallen partners' fellow widows, Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) the now-single mom who lost her business in her husband's wake and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debecki), whose life is seemingly aimless; after discovering their posthumous follow-up job that can clear them from debt and rebuild their lives. But not before certain parties try to muscle their own slice from the planned take they don't believe these amateurs can possibly pull off.

Loaded with surprise twists and thrills based on the titular 1983 British TV miniseries by Prime Suspect creator Lynda La Plante, McQueen once again maintains his aesthetic prowess with flawless precision around his and Gillian Flynn's (Gone Girl) cracking adapted script without caving into the type of formulaic slickness that so often burdens a film of this genre for their own good (best example, Ocean's 8 ) that never lets up, yet doesn't alienate those who usually turn their backs at art-house cinema either.

The cast choices are all brilliant, particularly Davis whose character is forced to delve into this darkly violent underworld from her serene life and marriage that isn't what it seemed to be and is a high mark in her career (perhaps another Oscar nom here, please?); Neesom as the crusty ringleader flitting in and out of her memories and Farrell's weakly wannabe politico looking to unload his familial legacy, as understated by Robert Duvall's terrific cameo as his domineering power broker dad.

But the film's real surprises belong to Daniel Kaluuya as Jamal's ruthlessly cold enforcer brother willing to break a few legs and Cynthia Erivo playing the athletic and ballsy late addition Belle to the trio of stickup ladies as some young British talent not to be overlooked. Punctuated by moody cinematography of Sean Bobbit and Hans Zimmer's stirring score, Widows manages to intelligently slip in backroom double dealing, corruption, greed and racial overtures examined in this two-hour explosive crime noir. Prepare to be wowed seeing this.

***

NEXT: Part 2 - Quincy, The Mercy of the Jungle and more. TIFF 2018 continues through to Sunday (September 16). For tickets and information, phone 416-599-8433/1-888-599-8433 or visit tiff.net

EDITION #192 - WEEK OF AUGUST 27-SEPTEMBER 2, 2018

Bedazzled by bejewelled Mughal India

The Emperors & Jewels: Treasures of the Indian Courts from The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait exhibit's "Mona Lisa" piece de resistance, the enameled "Todi Ragini Playing the Vina" archery ring, currently on display at the Aga Khan Museum.

Emperors & Jewels: Treasures of the Indian Courts from The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait

Venue: Aga Khan Museum, 77 Wynford Drive

Dates/Times: Through January 27, 2019; Holiday Mondays (September 3 and October 8), Tuesdays-Sundays 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Wednesdays until 8 p.m.); Special modified hours for September 21: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

Admission/Information: $20 Adults, $15 Seniors, $12 Students (14-17/full-time post-secondary with I.D.), $10 Child (6-13); Call 416-646-4677 or agakhanmuseum.org

Gallery Review

Between the 16th and 18th centuries CE, central India was partially ruled under the five Deccan Sultanates that became part of what would be called Mughal India whilst surrounded by the predominant Hindu empires of the day. After a peaceful period, the area became a centre for learning, religious tolerance, enlightenment and a major source of diamonds until 1858 when its last ruler Emperor Siraj al-Din Muhammad Bahadur Shah II dissolved the realm that later became British India.

Left-right: A jewel-encrusted jade dagger and a jade reservior inlaid with gold, rubies and diamonds from 17th and 18th-century Mughal Indian Empire are now on loan to the Aga Khan Museum's Emperors & Jewels: Treasures of the Indian Courts from The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait exhibit direct from the Persian Gulf kingdom's Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah Museum.

Their bejewelled artistry can now be viewed in the exclusive Canadian viewing at the Aga Khan Museum exhibit Emperors & Jewels: Treasures of the Indian Courts from The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait. Courtesy of the personal collection of Sheikh Nasser and Sheikha Hussa al-Sabah of Kuwait who started gathering over 30,000 items from the period since the mid-1970s, it is considered one of the most distinguished collections of ancient and Islamic art in the world. Having been on long-term loan to the State of Kuwait, where it opened as Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah in 1983 and occupying one of the four buildings of its National Museum Complex, about one hundred items are display ranging from the ceremonial to everyday practicality in one of the museum's best exhibits yet.

For starters, check out the Jewelled Jade Dagger with Scabbard and Locket and Sash-cord from the 17th-century CE with tiny specks of rubies and emeralds and the Jewelled Chila clam Dagger and Scabbard -- considered the "star" piece of the collection back at the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah -- with its iron overlay in gold and encrusted with 2,393 stones in the tiger and elephant's heads shows the amazing detail went into this.

Carved from rock crystal and inlaid with gold in a set of rubies and emeralds, the Bezoar of Goa Stone once carried by men of importance, contained concretions made of hair and ruminant material (ex. sheep) which had the reputation of reacting to certain poisons; that feared of being assassinated. Another couple of interesting pieces are a pendant with the name of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (reign 1627-58) made of a jade inlaid with gold frame and suspension lugs, right next to a gorgeous steel gold-inlay archery ring with Jahan's name inscribed in what happens to be the tiniest Arabic script ever put on a item of that era (next to the modern microscopic full copy of the Qu'ran -- I'm not joking, they do exist).

The gold-inlay steel archery ring of Mughal Indian Emperor Shah Jahan at the Aga Khan Museum's Emperors & Jewels: Treasures of the Indian Courts from The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait exhibit.

Once an insignia of the Mughal courts, the Mahi-o Marateb standard made of hammered and repousse silver and engraved with gilded rock crystal eyes, fish was also a part of Islamic symbolism in the Arabic letter nun that took up what would be somewhat of a close correlation to the ancient Greek mythology of Atlas who carried the world atop its back. But it's not all baubles, as other arts such as opaque watercolours mixed with ink and gold on paper of the second Mughal emperor in "Humuyan Defeats His Rebellious Brother Kamran at Kabul"; some fine usage of a muted green pigment for the "Portrait of Shah Raju II" or "The Art of Chivalry," as inspired from Iranian philosopher Nasir al-Din Tusi's manuscript Aklaq-i-Nasiri (Ethics of Nasiri) of what appears to be the beginnings of a upcoming battle.

A gold-inlaid jade pendant with the name of Mughal Indian Emperor Shah Jahan's name also inscribed in gold as part of the Aga Khan Museum's Emperors & Jewels exhibit.

For some really impressive items, there's a piece that might as well be the South Asian "Mona Lisa" itself: an "Archery Ring with Todi Ragini Playing the Vina" made of gold, enamelling and set with a spinel (arrow) on how tiny the image is made, plus another engraved work of genius, the nearly uncut 249.3-karat "Timur Ruby" (or the Royal Gemstone) that was a possession of Emperor Jahangir he obtained as a gift during a state visit to Afghanistan that held the engraved name of his ancestor including his own, his son and grandson, spanning centuries and rulers of the artefact.

Although smallish in comparison to past Aga Khan Museum shows, Emperors & Jewels hardly fails to impress one over the appreciation of how much craftsmanship is put into each piece big and small alike that these royal courts had a finer outlook and generous arts patronage that latter-day artists would envy.

Rabble-rousers and game-changers rule TIFF's roost

Activist filmmaker Michael Moore is back at Toronto International Film Festival with a vengeance when he turns his camera on Trumpian America in his highly-awaited documentary, Fahrenheit 11/9.

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 Preview

A well-known (and favourite) rabble-rouser, a pop starlet goes all country and a Swede icon marking a centenary birth year make up just a tad of the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) as the fall cinematic classic hits the town September 6th to 16th is tinged with a sense of bittersweetness with long-time festival CEO Piers Handling stepping down after a near quarter-century at the helm and Artistic Director Cameron Bailey taking up the mantle as Co-Head attached to his duties soon afterwards.

"We have an exceptional selection of films this year that will excite Festival audiences from all walks of life," said Handling. "[TIFF's] lineup showcases beloved auteurs alongside fresh voices in filmmaking, including numerous female powerhouses. The sweeping range in cinematic storytelling from around the world is a testament to the uniqueness of the films that are being made."

"Every September we invite the whole film world to Toronto, one of the most diverse, movie-mad cities in the world. I'm thrilled that we've been able to put together a line-up of Galas and Special Presentations that reflects Toronto's spirit of inclusive, passionate engagement with film. We can't wait to unveil these films for our audience."

Romanian director Radu Jude's ambitious meta-drama "I Don't Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians", his first film in almost a decade; puts a bold modern twist on an infamous wartime massacre of Ukrainian Jews committed by Romanian troops during World War II makes its North American premiere at TIFF.

In the Galas section is the Opening Night Gala choice medieval epic Outlaw King, a David-versus-Goliath tale reuniting award-winning director David Mackenzie (Young Adam) with his Hell or High Water actor Chris Pine, who takes on the starring role of the legendary 14th-century Scottish hero-king Robert the Bruce who leads a band of outlaws to reclaim the throne from the clutches of the English crown and its army; a new incarnation of A Star is Born, with Bradley Cooper in his directorial debut of this fourth remake (at one time Clint Eastwood and Beyonce -- and later jazz superstar Esperanza Spalding -- were tapped to do it) and lead role of the washed-out country star grooming his protege played by Stephanie Germanotta -- better known worldwide as Lady Gaga -- in her starring role debut; White Boy Rick, based on the true story of Rick Werse Jr. who at age 14 became the youngest FBI drug informant in 1970s Detroit with rookie actor Richie Merrit in the lead and Matthew McConaughey as his father; Jason Reitman returns not only for his now-annual onstage film script Live Read (this year it's the John Hughes '80s teen cult classic The Breakfast Club) on September 9 at Ryerson Theatre (43 Gerrard Street East), but also with his second release for the year, The Front Runner, based on the 1988 U.S. political psuedo-sex scandal of presidential hopeful Gary Hart and Donna Rice and the dark comedy Western The Sisters Brothers starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly as the titular assassin brothers on a job to take out a gold prospector by their boss, based on the 2011 Governor General Award-winning bestseller by Canadian author Patrick deWitt.

Director Steve McQueen, who won the 2013 People's Choice Award (and later the Best Picture Oscar) for 12 Years a Slave, is back with probably his most commercialist risk yet, the heist thriller Widows where a group of Chicago wives led by Viola Davis go out to finish the robbery their husbands perished in the attempt to pull off failed; Robert Redford's (acting) retirement film The Old Man & The Gun, playing the real-life career criminal Forrest Tucker, who spent six decades robbing banks (and escaping from prison 17 times) going on his "one last job" and Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the Melissa McCarthy-led dramedy of true-life celebrity biographer and forger Lee Israel, based on her own memoir of the period.

Rob Stewart's final project Sharkwater: Extinction gets screened at TIFF as a tribute to the late Torontonian filmmaker's crusade to save the sharks of the world's oceans from going extinct.

And here's something that doesn't happen too often in the irony department at TIFF: writers/directors Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) and Damien Chazelle (La La Land), where the former lost to the latter at the People's Choice Award in 2016, but grabbed Best Picture Oscar away from the latter just milliseconds later at the awards; both premiere their newest films with Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk based on the James Baldwin novel of a pregnant young wife trying to prove her husband's innocence of a crime he didn't commit and Chazelle reuniting with La La Land 's Ryan Gosling for First Man about the space pioneers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's journey to the moon.

German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta looks at Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman's legacy and interviews directors who count him among their influences with Searching for Ingmar Bergman to screen at the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival.

In the TIFF Documentaries, Michael Moore's back with his long-awaited world premiere of Fahrenheit 11/9, taking a radical aim and humorous poke at the United States under Donald Trump since his presidential inauguration; Quincy, profiling the American music producer icon Quincy Jones as co-directed by his daughter Rashida Jones and Alan Hicks; Victoria Stone and Billy Corben's Screwball, a true-crime comedy on doping in Major League Baseball and the posthumous release of Rob Stewart's Sharkwater: Extinction, now focused on the cruel practice of shark-finning (where the fins are just sliced off and the fish is left to die) as completed by his fellow filmmakers when the Torontonian nature doc director tragically perished in a SCUBA-diving accident while making his 2006 follow-up Sharkwater in late January 2017.

"We're especially proud to present such a diverse group of [Canadian] films," said Steve Gravestock, TIFF Senior Programmer. "Ranging from science fiction to fantasy, myth to documentary, and romance to a dystopic vision of our neighbours to the south, this year's Canadian films come from every region in the country, stretching from east to west and north to south."

"We're thrilled with this year's lineup of compelling and distinctive films," added Danis Goulet, TIFF Canadian Features Programmer. "The films feature characters who push hard against prescribed boundaries, asking vital questions about the state of the world and the status quo. We are especially excited to have a strong slate of bold and dynamic women-centric stories. Forty percent of the Canadian film slate this year is directed by women."

Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky's Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, his follow-up from the critically-acclaimed Manufactured Landscapes; explores the emerging concept of a geological epoch called the Anthropocene, defined by the impact of humanity on natural development makes its world premiere at TIFF.

The nineteen homemade titles joining the Canuck contingent of world premieres include Edward Burtynsky's highly-anticipated eco-documentary Anthropocene: The Human Epoch ; Ron Mann's Greenwich Village guitar-maker Rick Kelly doc Carmine Street Guitars; fest alumnus Igor Drljac makes his feature-documentary debut at the Festival with The Stone Speakers and TIFF veteran Barry Avrich returns with Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz, a doc-portrait of the United States' chief prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials; Quebecois master filmmaker Denys Arcand returns with the third instalment of his American Empire series, The Fall of the American Empire; Astra Taylor's What is Democracy? ; Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown's Edge of the Knife, the first feature-length film made in Haida, which is classified by UNESCO as an endangered language; Darlene Naponse's Falls Around Her, a moving portrait of healing and resilience starring legendary Metis actor Tantoo Cardinal; Miranda de Pencier's feature directorial debut The Grizzlies, a creative collaboration between De Pencier and Inuit producers Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and Stacey Aglok MacDonald that tells an inspiring, true story and that was shot on location in MacDonald's home community in Nunavut and one entry bound to stir up some controversy, the film adaptation of Through Black Spruce, based on the now-discredited author Joseph Boyden's Giller Prize winner as directed by Childstar director Don McKellar.

The dialogue-free environmental French-Belgian film Miniscule Mandibles From Far Away appears at the TIFF Kids contingent of the film fest.

This year's TIFF Kids section includes The Elephant Queen, a fascinating documentary following the elephant Athena and her herd as narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor; Icebox, based on an award-winning short of the same name that follows a twelve-year-old Honduran named Oscar, who faces the harsh reality of navigating immigration after fleeing gang violence in his hometown; Minuscule - Mandibles From Far Away, a animated story of a young ladybug who works to save the rainforest after being swept away on a grand adventure and the stunningly animated Tito and the Birds, which follows the ten-year-old Tito on his quest to learn more about birds as his town faces a strange new affliction that makes people sick when they get scared.

"Selected with our youngest cinephiles in mind, these films provide an opportunity to talk about difficult yet important topics, including immigration, fear and perseverance, in accessible ways," said Senior Programming Manager, TIFF Kids Jennifer Barkin. "They ignite conversation, not just about their love of film, but also to help them make sense of the world around them. At their core, the hearts of these films are the young protagonists relatable for audiences of all ages."

Zacharias Kunuk's 2001 award-winning Northern masterpiece Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner gets a free screening at this year's TIFF Cinematheque section.

This year's line-up for the fest's streaming cinematic-television Platform program features Amazon Studios' world premiere of Homecoming with Julia Roberts, based on the podcast by creators/showrunners Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, as a gripping psychological thriller that uncovers the truth behind a military reintegration facility's questionable motives and Facebook Watch's new series, Sorry For Your Loss that explores the life of a young widow as she grieves the loss of her husband while being forced to deal with the truth of her past.

Adding vast global appeal to this line-up is the French dystopian SF series Ad Vitam, about a collective suicide masterminded by seven teenagers that occurs after the world's longest-living human being turns 169 years old. Threatened by humanity's efforts to extinguish death and aging, a rebellion rises against regeneration technology that leaves many to question the meaning of life and immortality; the Indonesia/Thailand/Singapore six-part, modern horror anthology co-production Folklore: A Mother's Love & Pob, as directed by six Asian directors who root the superstitions and mythologies from each director's respective country and will be presented in the local language of the country the episode is based in and the Israeli death comedy Stockholm that brings four friends together covering up the death of their friend, who's a front-runner for a Economics Nobel Prize.

Writer-director Barry Jenkins returns to TIFF with his follow-up to his surprise Academy Award-winning Moonlight with an film adaptation of James Baldwin's 1974 romantic-drama novel, If Beale Street Could Talk.

For the Contemporary World Cinema section, several of the twenty-seven world premieres in the programme are from TIFF veterans, including Belmonte from Uruguay's Federico Veiroj; Stupid Young Heart from Finnish Academy Award nominee Selma Vilhunen; Quien te Cantara from Spain's Carlos Vermut and Look at Me from Tunisia's Nejib Belkadhi. The programme also highlights film selections that have already captivated audiences worldwide this year including the touchy meta-drama on reopening old Wolrd War II wounds through a theatrical recreation with "I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians" from Romania; Columbian narco-drama Birds of Passage by directing duo Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra and the Cannes critical darling Girls of The Sun, a war drama about a group of Iraqi Kurdish women combantants out to do battle against Daesh, as well as against the grain of traditional roles for Islamic women.

And for the global shorts in the Short Cuts programme, among the selection are Reed Van Dyk's Interior, a bold follow-up to his 2017 Academy Award-nominated school shooting docudrama DeKalb Elementary; A.V. Rockwell's vivid and vital drama Feathers; Hector Silva Nunez's exploration of identity in The Foreign Body; and Charles Williams' All These Creatures, an emotionally-wrenching drama that won the Short Film Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes. The 2018 programme also includes short documentaries like Theresa Traore Dahlberg's The Ambassador's Wife, an elegant study of a woman who represents the complexities of class, women's roles and post-colonialism and Jayisha Patel's Circle, a haunting documentary that tells the horrifying story of a young woman caught in a cycle of abuse and animated standouts include Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels' This Magnificent Cake!, a wildly ambitious and original felt stop-motion marvel that uses stories set in the Belgian Congo in the 19th century to reveal the absurdity and horror of European colonialism in Africa; Anca Damian's free-flowing yet astoundingly intricate The Call and Donato Sansone's Bavure, a bravura display of eye-popping, mind-bending, body-morphing ingenuity.

Looking for some freebies at TIFF? There's the opening weekender Festival Street (September 7-9) with interactive events of the new Refinery29 Festival Rooftop and other events and TIFF Cinematique 35 mm screenings of Ingmar Bergman's 1986 classic Persona, in marking the celebrated Swedish auteur's birth centenary; a rare 1928 print of The Passion of Joan of Arc, featuring a live piano accompaniment by Toronto musician Marilyn Lerner; Claire Denis' debut feature Chocolat, which first screened at TIFF back in 1988 and Zacharias Kunuk's Camera d'Or- and Genie Award-winning feature debut that made his name in this country and around the world, the 2001 Arctic chase-thriller Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner.

***

Indivual tickets go on sale September 3 at 10 a.m. (TIFF Member pre-sale September 1 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.). For tickets and information, phone 416-599-8433/1-888-599-8433, or visit tiff.net.

EDITION #191 - WEEK OF AUGUST 20-26, 2018

Aretha Franklin 1942-2018

Cartoon Tribute

The singer/songwriter/activist/Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Aretha Franklin, who passed away on August 16; gets a special R-E-S-P-E-C-T from my Hounds of Love comic strip series. I had the greatest fortune in seeing and reviewing the undisputed Queen of Soul performing at the 2011 Toronto Jazz Festival myself for the Outreach Connection and wouldn't have missed this music icon for anything. Thanks for all the songs and memories, Sister Aretha. You were the most natural woman of all.

An Asian Tiger entrepot endangered and a Iranian play drowned in translation

SummerWorks Exchange group engage in the closing outdoor Community Meal and Porch Sitting event on August 15 after a three-day industry meeting for this year's indie theatre festival in Lisgar Park.

SummerWorks 2018 Reviews

Part 2 of a 2-part series

The Extinction of Hong Kongers (Theatre du Poulet/SummerWorks)

Toronto Media Arts Centre Main Gallery, 32 Lisgar Street

Wednesday, August 16; 8:30 p.m.

Since the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong in 1984, the city-state's drive for some semblance of democracy has been a contentious one as demonstrated by the Halifax-based Theatre du Poulet's brightly witty Toronto premiere of The Extinction of Hong Kongers, basically on the fear of being snuffed out culturally as well as in political and social contexts.

Creators/directors/performers Chun Shing Roland Au and Santayana Li explain the modern history of their birthplace in under a hour from the arrival of British colonialism in 1842 and their dominance for the next 156 years until reunification with mainland China which has always been an uneasy one, what with occasional protests against seemingly spineless local bureaucrats that are more than happy to kowtow to Beijing's iron-fisted rule and their forced imposition of the Mandarin language and culture over the region's predominately Cantonese one.

Through puppetry with a highly impressive cardboard layout of the area from its skyline to the major outlying islands of Hong Kong and Lantau -- plus a model of a Chinese junk -- Chun and Li, along with Carmen Lee; spin a modestly political and playful comedy adding more recent events like the 2014 Umbrella Revolution and the disappearances/reappearances of independent publishers by Chinese officials, added with a tinge of sentiment, as well as melancholy, over the last two decades under reunification.

But for all its seemingly uncertain future, Extinction has mostly high points with using marionettes (and potatoes!) as Hong Kongers and mainlanders trying to get into the Asian Tiger entrepot for its freedoms and hopeful beacon of democracy they yearn for, as this young company certainly mixes seriocomic elements with its themes with finesse to Ross Unger's bouncy score and Kabeer Garba's lighting designs. Definitely would look forward to seeing their next Toronto production.

The Negroes are Congregating (PIECE OF MINE Arts/SummerWorks)

Incubator Space, Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West

Wednesday, August 16; 10 p.m.

Local group PIECE OF MINE Arts pulls out the polemic in a three-way tag team attack on institutionalized racism in a take-no-prisoners manner to deliver a take-no-B.S. for The Negroes are Congregating to take on whatever stereotypes and preconceived notions about the African-Canadian community with rapid-fire precision that demands attention.

As David Delisca, Angaer Arop and Dennis W. Langley unleash a series of spoken word, satire and dialect over writer/director Natasha Adiyana Morris' play tackle everything from diversity, gender issues and divide-and-conquer politics over a ninety minute run to show that Canada itself is not immune to the toxicity of racism and sexism within a capitalist system, even within the very community itself.

Coming across as powerful as street poetry and prose can muster up, The Negroes are Congregating doesn/t mince words on what it is to be young, gifted and a African-Canadian having to fight against the veiled systemic prejudice that even almost fifty years after adopting the multicultural agenda that we as a society have a long ways to go.

A still from the Gunilla Josephson video Art Thieves.

Gunilla Josephson: Art Thieves/ Shira Leuchter and Michaela Washburn: Lost Together

Charles Street Video Gallery (Art Thieves) and Main Gallery (Lost Together), Toronto Media Arts Centre, 32 Lisgar Street, 2nd Floor

Gallery Review

Swedish video artist Gunilla Josephson's Art Thieves takes a surrealistic poke at the hoity-toity of art appreciation in her eighteen-minute looped video at the Charles Street Video (CSV) Gallery at the Toronto Media Arts Centre (TMAC) where two oddball characters take a visit to a generic art venue and wander about in a variety of activities that engage in whatever art objects come across their path or not.

Directing with a Kubrickian sense of social slapstick, the filmmaker relies a lot on the avant-garde that works in a way with little narrative on how the art connoisseur (and those pretending to be) almost maintains a sense of snobbery and a bumbler believing they have more refined sophistication against those who never set foot in such a place. So, in a way, Art Thieves is a self-parody of art lovers -- and those who critique it.

UnSpun Theatre's Shira Leuchter and Michaela Washburn came up with the companion art exhibit to their Lost Together (August 9, 14, 18 and 19) production, as part of the SummerWorks Lab Series; in a mini-collection of mixed-media pieces of artwork where after interviewing some audience members on past memories of what they've lost, from the tangible to the intangible; and remade for display.

Very childlike in presentation, there's a innocence hanging over each of the several pieces on display mainly untitled, but some with interesting names too like "22 Thelma," "Hippie Hat" and "The Porch of Futures Foreclosed" that drew some viewers into these tiny, tony worlds that must mean something in the grander scheme of what memories hold dear to the object(s) in question the artists had in making them publicly accessible.

KATIMAJUIT/one for five (Why Not Theatre/The School of Toronto Dance Theatre/SummerWorks)

Franco Boni Theatre, Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West

Sunday, August 19; 12 p.m.

Ancient Inuit musical arts and modern technology intermarried into KATIMAJUIT, the first half of an experimental theatre double bill; with creator/director Maziar Ghaderi and the throat singing Sila Singers all compacted into a short, mesmerising theatre-concert production that held itself for the most part.

Like a yawning void that built up on itself of white digital imagery on black, Malaya Bishop and Jenna Broomfield a.k.a. The Sila Sisters broke the ethereal white noise score by Saintfield (Ciara Adams and Ali Jafri) with their Inuit pisik and aton (drum and dance) along with their 'quilat (frame drum). As they mirrored each other, the Berlin/Montreal-based audio sensory visual artist Sahar Homani's digital projections revelled like a hyperrealistic frozen wasteland of drifting "snow" and multicoloured auroral currents swirling away; provided a sensory hypnotism of sorts; it gave a playful measure on communicating with each other, or "people meeting," as the play's Inuktitut title suggests. The build-up on it was tedious, but it did fully reach its potential picking up the pace.

The School of Toronto Dance Theatre's movement-themed one for five had a very aesthetically flowing choreography courtesy of Kristen-Innes Stambolic (who also was the backdrop animator/projectionist) and the five other dancers involved in the twenty-minute production with sweeping moves along the illustrative floor drawing onstage. Slow to start, it gradually made some progression to the Frank Bretschneider/David Hildenbrant/Ejnar Kanding track "Auxiliary Blue" before winding down in an intertwining show of unity.

Both short works had their merits and strengths, but at times were almost hard to keep up with at times with these "works-in-progress" to maintain long-term attention. Still, it was good to see that the creators/artists are willing to take a critical examination of their works from the audience to find out what worked and didn't work out as a craft tool to grow on.

b side (SummerWorks)

Alleyway between Lobb Avenue and Logie Place near Artscape Youngplace, 180 Shaw Street

Sunday, August 19; 4 p.m.

Working as a cross between dance and performance art, duettists Molly Johnson and Meredith Thompson took over, albeit briefly; the stretch of a Queen West area back alley for their production of b side as a meditative meandering of witness and observation of the everyday objects we often overlook, only with a deeper meaning involved.

Over a thirty-minute run with Robbie Grunwald's minimalist soundtrack accompanying them, Johnson and Thompson pranced, crisscrossed and moved along the dance space within chalked-out spots among the alleyway garages, spilling and placing fresh lemons (to be explained later) on the route -- and encourage the following audience to do the same -- in slow mime-like dance moves.

By the end at the bottom of the roadway their explanation and mandate was made clear: to give some notice to attention, space and presence on the place we call our home on those who came before, now and afterwards on the treaty lands that is Canada and to pay homage to the First Nations that were here thousands of years before European contact.

Using the area as a dance venue is an innovative and cooperative move for the dance duo and the profound message about the journey we take and to have more responsibility of the world we share in their well synchronised choreography. And also, when was the last time you were treated to free homemade lemonade at the end of a dance production?

Swim Team (Nowadays Theatre/Alma Matters Productions/SummerWorks)

Franco Boni Theatre, Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West

Sunday, August 19; 6 p.m.

Based on true events on the restrictions of women's sports in post-revolutionary Iran, the 2008 Jaber Ramezani play Swim Team made its Canadian premiere at SummerWorks that should have been an exploratory forum on the country's feminist movement against the patriarchal Iranian society, however its metaphorical structure is somewhat lost in translation from its original Farsi.

Having just moved to a tiny apartment in a desert town far from Tehran, former swimming coach Roya (Banafsheh Taherian) takes under her wing three young charges Lili (Paraya Tahsini), Katy (Sarah Saberi) and Nary (Tina Bararian) in teaching them how to swim by improvising a "pool" within the confines of her living room using some chairs, ropes and a little imagination.

As they make whatever progress they can with strokes and breathing techniques, Roya is confident they can compete and win as a team for the national championships, despite her students' misgivings to the contrary. With her ambitions now growing, reality intervenes to give the women a moment of pause to take on an obstacle larger than they could possibly achieve.

The play has an interesting premise and producer/director Aida Keykhali does a good job in guiding the capable cast members in their roles, but Mohammed Yaghoubi's dramaturge in translating the play's Farsi language and meaning is a bit lethargic in the pace and whatever social and political message that was originally in Ramezani's vision gets dimmed in its 75-minute run.

Nowadays Theatre, who put on the excellent A Moment of Silence (also by Yaghoubi) back at SummerWorks 2016; does give this surrealistically political play a worthy try about the limitations of a unchecked imagination that could have been better on the fears that restrict us from making any sense of professional or personal progress.

FESTIVAL SUMMARY

This year was an exceptionally good one for SummerWorks to break the festival into three streams: regular theatricals Presentations, the work-in-progressive Lab and career-builder Exchange for artists and audiences to participate and see a variety of works that were more bolder than most, yet were given a chance to absorb some criticism on whatever improvement(s) could be made for future presentations. Plus; the festivities moved away from the Bathurst Street independent theatre district after so many years to concentrate being more on the Queen West area with a brand new venue, TMAC, whose facilities will play a more prominent and bright role in SummerWorks' future and didn't do too bad for its first year of operation.

Fest standouts belonged to ZAYO, Lion Womxn, CAFE SARAJEVO episode 1, The Negroes are Congregating, b side and The Extinction of Hong Kongers; while the misses go out to fantasylover, Swim Team, THIRD WORLD and one for five. And while it was most pleasing to see SummerWorks' visual arts component return with the simple and substantial Art Thieves and Lost Together at TMAC, it was strange that neither of these exhibits were announced in the programme guides or even on their website that could have gotten better exposure for those with an interest in it (hope it was just a one-time slip).

EDITION #190 - WEEK OF AUGUST 13-19, 2018

The original Undercover Brother

BlacKkKlansman (Focus Features/Universal)

Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace, Laura Harrier

Director: Spike Lee

Producers: Jason Blum, Spike Lee, Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele and Shaun Redick

Screenplay: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee; based on the book Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth

Film Review

The winner of the Grand Prix and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury of Special Mention at this year's Cannes, the timely period docudrama BlacKkKlansman is more than just another brilliant examination of America's race relations from Spike Lee, as is it about the rise of the alternative-right that has re-emerged in the past couple of years under a Trumpian White House and one brave man's mission to expose their ugly nature based on true accounts.

Coming back from his tour of duty in Vietnam, Ron Stallworth (Washington) becomes the first African-American police officer for the Colorado Springs Police Department in 1972 and before long gets an undercover assignment to infiltrate a talk from visiting Civil Rights activist Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) as hosted by the local college's student president Patrice (Harrier).

Quickly moving up the ranks in police intelligence, the eager rookie comes across an ad for the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan by chance by posing over the phone as a white guy wanting to join them. Seizing this opportunity to investigate the Klan's movements in the area, he has his partner Flip Zimmerman (Driver) to stand-in for him, who ironically happens to be Jewish.

Gaining the confidence of chapter president Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold) and later on, the KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Grace), the operation starts getting more serious than just a bunch of vitriolic hillbillies espousing white power slogans that includes activities both officers face with their own personal risks, as they get deeper into this dark and poisonous underworld.

Director/co-writer/co-producer Lee makes this volatile, flowing police drama-blackploitation thriller his best film since The 25th Hour whilst injecting sharp humour and his trademark agenda against institutionalized racism from clips of Hollywood's past romance with it (The Birth of A Nation; Gone With the Wind) to the unedited graphic footage of the 2017 Charlottesville protests where paralegal/activist Heather D. Heyer was fatally run over -- with permission from her family -- and Trump's glowing praise for the violent alt-right base he panders to.

Washington (son of Denzel) is a absolute natural in this breakthrough performance as Stallworth, for whom his memoirs are based on; with such confidence and cool poise in every scene he's in, as does Driver playing the secular Jewish cop who starts to have an epiphany about his religion with this assignment; Jasper Paakkonen portrays the scariest Klansman in living cinematic memory that should get a Oscar nom as the fervently radical Felix Kendrickson and the bit roles by Grace, Hawkins, Alec Baldwin as a KKK leader and a ultra-rare cameo from Harry Belafonte makes this all worth seeing.

While the female roles of Harrier as Stallworth's chic radical sister and Ron's potential interest to Ashlie Atkinson as a Kendrickson's blindly faithful wife are a bit stripped down here, the cinematography of Chayse Irvin keeps the drained halcyon feel of the '70s intact and Terence Blanchard's striking score nonetheless makes BlacKkKlansman as one of the best films of the year.

Graceful galactic grandeur

Jordan Bennett: Tepkik

Venue: Allan Lambert Galleria, Brookfield Place, 181 Bay Street

Dates/Times: Through August 24; Mondays-Saturdays 6 a.m.-1:45 a.m., Sundays 9 a.m.-1:45 a.m.

Admission/Information: FREE. Call 416-777-6480 or online:brookfieldplacenewsandevents.com or jordonbennett.ca

Art Review

In one of the more positive aspects of a broader exposure of Indigenous art in a post-sesquicentennial Canada, the award-winning Halifax-based Mi'kmaq-Stephenville Crossing Ktaqamkuk Nation artist Jordan Bennett brings both his heritage and modern art forms in Tepkik, a large 30.4-metre temporary installation commission currently hanging along Brookfield Place's Allan Lambert Galleria westerly ceiling that truly brightens up the otherwise industrial metallic spinal structure.

Bennett constructs Tepkik (the Mi'kmaq word for "night") out of a curvature formation, almost like a DNA strand; with a variety of symbols and geometrical patterns relating to the Mi'kmaq, the Beothuk of Newfoundland-Labrador and Inuit petroglyphs on 60.9-metres of Polysilk fabric and custom reflective vinyl with such striking boldness it can't help itself in catching the viewer's eye. And when the occasional breeze flutters through the installation, it's almost like viewing an aurora borealis strand is moving through it.

With childlike star mobiles representing the Milky Way attached to the bottom to add a sense of whimsy innocence to it, Tepkik sticks to the traditional modes yet very modern for its Pop art mannerism stretching itself along the space with the artist's keen eye and colour schematics that remain harmonious to the several pieces involved. See this one while you can, for it won't be up for very long.

Roaring lionesses and Balkanized coffee

SummerWorks 2018 Reviews

Part 1 of a 2-part series

THIRD WORLD/ZAYO (FLY LADY DI/Esie Mensah Creations/SummerWorks)

Franco Boni Theatre, Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West

Thursday, August 9; 6:15 p.m.

Inspired by her first-ever trip to her ancestral home of the Philippines a few years ago, dancer/choreographer Diana Reyes a.k.a. FLY LADY DI starts THIRD WORLD as a soloist for the first half of a dance double-bill as a cathartic answer to her own culture shock, body and identity issues and the passion for her artistry against conventional norms in a mixture of Filipino folk, old school hip-hop, b-girling, house and dance club moves with energy, yet lacks a narrative structure.

Against a video backdrop mirroring her six "personality" traits, Reyes pushes herself into each mode while adjusting her malong shawl wrap as a costume and stage prop (her "second character," as she describes it) even cocooning herself at times to the beat of the moment with spirit and momentum. However, her movements are slow on the upstart but does gradually picks up (is this intentional?) and one can credit Maylee Todd's videogame-like projections that are eclectic and unique in keeping in line with Faye Eduave, plus Reyes' choreography could have had more polish in kin to the visuals in question. But one has to give her a pat on the back for the effort put into her first solo project.

ZAYO fared much better as put on by the Esie Mensah Creations troupe on a high-octane production about personal destiny. Born in the mist-covered realm of Nxi, creator/director/choreographer Mensah portrays Ouhna who is guided by the land's spirits to reach her goal by adversarial figures that are determined to break her down in this unforgiving environment.

With tighter choreography and a pulsing, ethereal Afro-techno score, the company puts on an exciting and challenging show with its own powerful message of perseverance against all odds that one feels through Ouhna, yet emboldened on a mental and physical level based on Ghanaian legends and symbols, courtesy of Daniele Guevera's lighting and projection designs.

Lion Womxn (The AMY Project/SummerWorks)

Incubator Space, Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West

Friday, August 10; 6:30 p.m.

As part of the local progressive arts training program for young women and transgender youth known as The AMY Project, Lion Womxn (pronounced "women") puts it into practice by sharing the experiences of this ensemble pastiche that finds itself being quite confessional and self-empowering at the same time through dialogue, song and dance.

Waiting on a subway platform and boarding on a train to nowhere, several multiracial and non-gendered passengers go into separate segues about how they see themselves and life in general so far: A Filipino describes her life with her late guardian grandma before moving to Canada. One home-schooled student speaks of trying to emerge from her protective mother's wing. An Ethiopian describes her family's hardships living here and back in her parent's homeland. All sorts of manifestos on gender equality, race and politics are discussed.

And yeah, there's poetry and humour, too.

Directors Julia Hune-Brown and Nikki Shaffeeullah allows a free-for-all approach for their young charges to go expressive with their feelings in order to bring out their true selves emotionally and professionally in the 75-minute run of the production that is quite profound in the maturity the cast extols while sharing the connection of experience with startling maturity against the backdrop of Nicole Eun-Ju Bell's projections and Senjuti Sarker's lighting designs.

A triumph of unbridled liberation, Lion Womxn is a shining example of grassroots youth theatre on how to love oneself and others in these most trying of times when the voices of misogyny, racism and hetrosexism has regained the upper hand in the court of public opinion.

fantasylover (Rock Bottom Movement/SummerWorks)

Incubator Space, Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West

Friday, August 10; 10 p.m.

For the uninitiated, Toronto's Rock Bottom Movement isn't your typical dance-theatre company. Since 2012, it's been engaging in ironic-absurdist/experimentalist works free of the confines of the aesthetical core with modest success and twenty productions later under the guidance of founder-choreographer Alyssa Martin. With their latest comedy -- and SummerWorks Festival debut -- fantasylover goes for a search of the feminist utopia that certainly had it moments, provided you can catch up with their brand of manic humour.

With our offside narrator-songstress (Francesca Chudnoff) and four heroines in fluorescent yellow high cut thong leotards, acting as a reversal Greek chorus in a sense; dance from one satirical extreme moment to another, be it the tragicomic tale of unrequited love between Nikkole (Samantha Grist) and her friend Rocket in a series of unanswered cellphone calls; a condensed fever dream take on Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost involving a tree named Joan (also Bloch-Hansen) to the seduction of Olympic glory and a endorsement deal of the ice skating duo Tessa Virtue (Drew Barry) and Scott Moir (also Grist).

Martin's jerky choreography (and that's a compliment) could rival Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo any day of the week -- and then some -- does have a lot going for it, however the exaggerated dramaturgy of Sydney Herauf is given a rapid-fire delivery by the quartet that is half-intelligible to get sometimes, which is almost a unfortunate waste.

Nevertheless, fantasylover is a fun piece to watch for all of its craziness and physically demanding energy it goes into under an hour, despite its overwhelming momentums about chasing pipe dreams in a rare out-and-out comedy that doesn't always make the SummerWorks roster too often.

CAFE SARAJEVO episode 1 (bluemouth inc./SummerWorks)

Toronto Media Arts Centre Main Gallery, 32 Lisgar Street

Saturday, August 11; 9:15 p.m.

At the brand new arts space and fest venue just literally around the corner from the festival hub of the Theatre Centre, the Toronto Media Arts Centre (TMAC) hosted the latest production from bluemouth inc., CAFE SARAJEVO episode 1, on how human history never seem to stray too far away from learning past bitter mistakes in the company's most innovative project to date to highlight their point.

About two years ago, bluemouth inc. co-founder and co-Artistic Director Lucy Simic came across a YouTube video on the 1971 televised debate between French theorist Michel Foucault and American MIT linguist Noam Chomsky over the Vietnam War's impact on global society not just on the conflict itself, but on human nature to come to any terms regarding ethical choices over political and social matters that divided America at that era.

Seeing this as an opportune time to bring this into the present-day context of the seismic shift radicalized alt-right movement, Brexit, Trump and more recently, a Ford Nation Ontario, Simic and her partner Stephen O'Connell nurtured this idea for a production on a side trip visit to Sarajevo while on a vacation of her ancestral home of Croatia, in correlation to the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s that tore the Balkans apart.

In this multidisciplinary live podcast of dance, text, music and virtual reality videos with iPod receivers with headphones, the viewer is sent on a journey of how the region has fared since the end of the conflict a quarter-century ago, in particular to the infamous three-and-a-half-years Siege of Sarajevo; in comparison to the other time periods of Vietnam and Trumpian America.

During the walking VR tour of Sarajevo, it's a scenic city in the world would look like post-reconstruction as if there never was a war there. But when it comes to such trivial matters like dialectal pronunciation of Serb-Croat lingua on ordering a localized version of Turkish coffee bringing discomfort (for the Serbs, it's "Bosnian coffee;" to the Croats, it's "boiled coffee") to the Roses of Sarajevo -- red resin road patches covering former bomb craters doubling as memorials to victims who died on that spot -- the (in)visible scars of that conflict are clearly evident. (And saying "Serbian aggression" in that part of the world is a very touchy subject to kick around.)

CAFE SARAJEVO episode 1 well presents itself in examining conflicts that leave a society heavily divided on "right versus wrong" sides like a talk radio conversation-cum-game show spoofing the Foucault-Chomsky debate in-between the video tour are a purposed distraction, from the realities of a world gone mad and American transcendentalism; as to being no different than today's reality-based TV.

It takes awhile to get used to the back-and-forth between viewing the 360-degree video clips via Google Cardboard VR viewer goggles and iPods around a similar stage area and watching the performers too (and sometimes the tech does freeze up), but once you catch on it does become a interesting 75-minute theatrical engagement when it finally comes up to searching whatever forgiveness and unity, as opposed to division and revenge, one can find it.

***

NEXT: Part 2 - Swim Team, b side, The Extinction of Hong Kongers and more. SummerWorks 2018 continues through to this Sunday (August 19). For tickets and information, call 416-732-4116 or summerworks.ca.

EDITION #189 - WEEK OF JULY 30-AUGUST 5, 2018

Motley troubadours lighten As You Like It

Roselynde, or As You Like It (Driftwood Theatre)

Oakdale Park, 350 Grandravine Drive

Friday, July 27; 7:30 p.m.

Theatre Review

The outdoorsy Driftwood Theatre's Bard's Bus Tour has a certain flavour in creating inspired and original adaptations and with this season's offering, Roselynde, or As You Like It, is a bit more creative as far as summer stock Shakespearean productions go out there in mixing up puppetry and live music for the romantic-comedy chestnut to maintain a hold for their contemporary audiences.

Set in post-World War I York (present-day Toronto), Orlando (Ngabo Nabea) complains of having to work as a dockworker under his older brother Silvius (Derek Kwan) who's also under the tight-fisted control of their dictatorial mayoral uncle Duke Frederick (Eric Woolfe), who previously had usurped their good father Duke Senior (also Woolfe) and exiled him to the Forest of Arden.

While his uncle runs the town more like a gangland hoodlum than a politician, Orlando falls for the heirless Roselynde (Sochi Fried) after meeting her in a wrestling match win. A suffragette by deed and nature, she too is banished by Duke Frederick for her "radical" ideas -- like actually giving women the right to vote -- and goes out to search for Duke Senior, along with her flapper cousin Celia (Ximena Huizi) and court jester Touchstone (Geoffrey Armour) while disguising herself as a man named Ganymede.

Forlorn over his beloved Roselynde's disappearance, Orlando and his faithful manservant also head for the Forest of Arden to find her where both parties meet up with an assorted array of motley characters all searching to find the meaning for their lives in a postwar world where the possibilities and opportunities are endless, along with some mixed-up matters of the heart.

Director D. Jeremy Smith guides the company to keep the light-hearted approach throughout the play sustainable and the ensemble isn't afraid to do a little adlibbing along the way that most summer stock companies wouldn't allow too often of straying away from the script, which makes Roselynde, or As You Like It more relatable, especially touching on subjects from personal freedoms to power-mad politicos that still hold reverence today.

Nabea and Fried lead the cast well and put on some pretty good chemistry onstage as the star-crossed couple and as solos, as well as Huizi's Celia in song and dialogue with Jazz Age ditties, Armour is spirited as the lively comic relief, Caroline Gillis puts a matriarchal touch to the lady pilot Jacques and Woolfe certainly chews up his scenery in his dual role of resident villain and benevolent leader-cum-forest moonshiner.

Lighting designer Michael Brunet adapts well to whatever environs come to the venue in question and the puppets co-created by Woolfe and production designer Sheree Tams have a comically grotesque charm to Roselynde, or As You Like It in its two-hour run that should keep its audience highly amused.

***

Roselynde, or As You Like It continues its Southern Ontario tour at various venues through August 12 at PWYC or FREE admissions. For more information, please call 1-844-601-8057 or visit driftwoodtheatre.com/bards-bus-tour.

Robert Lepage: artistic genius or Eurocentric cultural appropriator?

Protesters rally outside a presentation of Robert Lepage's SLAV at Theatre du Nouveau Monde at the Montreal International Jazz Festival on June 26 before its cancellation three days later.

Quebecois stage master Robert Lepage is under fire from critics for two recent productions on the grounds of cultural appropriation. But are these legitimate complaints or are they shaming tactics in the name of political correctness?

Arts Commentary

What would have been seen as 2018 as a banner year for Quebecois dramaturge mastermind Robert Lepage and his company Ex Machina, starting with Frame by Frame, the critically-acclaimed ballet on the life of celebrated Canadian animator Norman McLaren in June and the current Stratford Festival production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus would have had two more feathers in his cap, had the issue of cultural sensitivities not clouded two productions, SLAV and Kanata, became causalities under the banner of cultural appropriation and political correctness.

The first victim, SLAV (pronounced slave), a musical production created by Lepage and musical director/performer Betty Bonifassi, based on the Negro spirituals and work slave songs of pre-Civil War America as a tribute to music as a tool for resilience and emancipation; that had a soft opening in April 14 in Quebec City and was to tour the rest of the province after its short-lived premiere at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in June, when complaints from the African-Canadian community on having a totally white cast of singers singing these songs; put a end to said production.

Left-right: A scene from SLAV and a rehearsal photo of Kanata.

Then came Kanata (the Huron-Iroquoian word for "village" or "settlement"; which accidentally birthed the name of Canada in 1535 for the native village of Stadacona, now present-day Quebec City), a European co-production with the Parisian-based Theatre du Soleil about the shared history of Canada's First Nations and European colonists that would have covered the last 150 years from first contact to the issues of missing Indigenous girls and women and residential schools; produced a conflict after a six-hour meeting with Lepage and 35 First Nations artistic community members over the fact that no Indigenous input or actors would contribute to it, with no resolution afterwards. As a result, Ex Machina lost their partnership with Theatre du Soleil on supporting the theatrical production on July 26, thus shelving Kanata in the process.

Both these productions, from a historical viewpoint, were birthed from the pains of disenfranchised peoples over the last half-millennium from the European conquest of the Americas and subjugation of its native populations since Columbus' arrival in 1492 to the present and the transatlantic slave trade that forced 12.5 million Africans to work, slave and die for the economies of the Americas and Europe from 1526 to 1867. And out of that suffering, new subcultures created the music and arts of both African descent (i.e. jazz and gospel) and indigenous groups (i.e. Metis music and designs).

Now comes the charge that Lepage is simply out to cash in on the sufferings and histories of these groups by "whitewashing" any contribution with mainly white castings, all in the name of artistic license and expression and with an aloof attitude to their complaints (as one Indigenous artist who attended the Kanata meeting had put it: "He (Lepage) could have said: 'We're bringing in a fantastic seamstress who will redo the costumes -- that's a change. He had a golden opportunity to make changes, instead he was like: "Nah, (it's) my money.'")

While their concerns are legitimate to a certain degree and they mostly deserved to be addressed, nothing could be further from the truth that one of Canada's most celebrated artisans is out to monopolize on other people's culture and putting a white face on it, especially which for the most part came out of suffering.

If anyone has been following his work for the last three decades, Lepage has been more than equal and sensitive to ethnic groups outside of the (Quebecois) Eurocentric circle. Best examples are his work he created and directed with the Quebec neo-circus company Cirque du Soleil, firstly with their monumental Las Vegas-based theatrical epic KA (2005), inspired from Asia from costuming to martial arts with nontraditional casting (although some Asian performers are in it) and the touring production of TOTEM (2010), which includes two actual Native American hoop dancers and joint contributions to the show's soundtrack.

Scenes from Cirque du Soleil's Las Vegas residency show KA (left) and touring production TOTEM (right); shows both created and directed by Robert Lepage using depictions of other cultures and nontraditional casting.

And there's never been any complaints of theft from the Asian community -- to the best of my knowledge -- whenever Eonnagata (2009) performed, and his operatic version of The Nightingale and Other Stories (2008), borrowing Vietnamese water puppetry techniques and Asiatic dress; 1988's The Dragon Trilogy or its 2008 sequel, The Blue Dragon or even his 1988 classic play, The Seven Streams of the River Ota which all of them had Asian influences from Japan and China.

I'll admit I've had difficulty grappling this issue not only as a longtime fan of Lepage's work (and have personally have met him, very nice guy), but also as an descendant of African-Caribbean, European and indigenous Carib peoples, a naturalized Canadian citizen close to five decades now and as a fellow artist. Not trying to be an apologist for him, but I feel that being a artist in the early 21st-century isn't as simple as it looks when it comes to artistically using other cultures to bring expression, discussion and debate on storytelling on who owns what or the tricky part of whether you're perpetrating stereotypes and/or looking to make a buck on other people's histories you have no relation to.

I feel that Lepage had good intentions on the subjects he was trying to convey with SLAV, on the history of African slavery and oppression and with Kanata, our complicated colonial history with the First Nations that we've repressed through systematic assimilation and annihilation. He, in my opinion, just went about it the wrong way. While I feel both these productions would have been great to see (he rarely puts on a bad show, if at all), he should have given into some sort of compromises, particularly with Kanata, when we are after our sesquicentennial last year needed more dialogue with such communities.

And as with SLAV, why couldn't Ex Machina have had a equal number of both European- and African-Canadian singers doing the songs in solos, duos and ensembles (there was only two of African descent in the show) as some had suggested to begin with? As Lepage had defended himself on this issue, he said that determining the ideal number number of visible minority artists who should be included in these types of productions is difficult to impose. "It's impossible to quantify. There are people who say, 'It should have been half-and-half," Lepage explained. "SLAV critics say 'It should be all black women.' There are no numbers."

While some cheered over the cancellation of Kanata, others did express remorse like Kim O'Bomsawin, an Abenaki Nation filmmaker who was also at the meeting with Lepage. "We're all extremely disappointed," she said. "The reason we sat down all together was so as not to repeat the same thing and have a SLAV 2. We didn’t want that at all. It’s not what we asked for, and the Ex Machina people know it. I see this as an opportunity to press pause and then continue the debate, maybe start fresh. I've always thought that when giants like Robert Lepage are interested in such important topics, which touch us, it's great news and pushes things forward. We just didn't like the way (this production) started off. But we had no interest in it being cancelled."

But like any artist and human being, we're all prone to make unintentional mistakes and I actually feel sorry for the debacles he got himself into. And even a theatrical giant like Lepage himself can accept some humility in this experience, as he said in a recent Radio-Canada interview, "In everything I've done, I've always tried to make room for Indigenous people, to include them. The misjudgment I had was to think that doing that allowed me to address these themes...My naivety is to assume people will think there's compassion and solidarity in wanting to play someone even though we are not them." Lepage said. He said he understood that the Kanata case is particular because of the pain experienced by Indigenous people when it comes to settler history. "So, of course I absolutely understand that these people are suspicious," Lepage said and long before the controversy arose, he had worked hard to make a space for Indigenous art at his Diamant Theatre, which is scheduled to open in Quebec City in the spring of 2019 and that the controversies have hurt him. "It's painful, because I've lost a lot of friends in all of this," Lepage said.

At the end of all this, perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here: most of the time people won't care if you tell another peoples' story your way, provided on what the subject is about (including touchy ones like slavery and oppression) and as long as there's an agreement that all sides can be satisfied with.

EDITION #188 - WEEK OF JULY 23-29, 2018

ABBA jukebox prequel/sequel upkeeps its corniness

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Universal)

Cast: Lily James, Amanda Seyfried, Meryl Streep, Dominic Cooper

Director: Ol Parker

Producers: Judy Cramer and Gary Goetzman

Screenplay: Ol Parker; story by Richard Curtis, Ol Parker and Catherine Johnson, as originally conceived by Judy Cramer; based on the original musical by Catherine Johnson

Film Review

Ten years and a $615 million worldwide box office take later, a follow-up to the smash ABBA jukebox musical film adaptation of Mamma Mia! was an far-gone inevitability that couldn't be avoided if one seriously tried. So with Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again going in the sequel/prequel vein, it's not much any different than last time around other than being the campy fun one would get from a summer feel-good film.

Some time has passed on the Greek isle of Kalokairi where Sophie Sheridan (Seyfried) tries to reopen of the Hotel Bella Donna she grew up in to fulfill her late mother Donna's (Streep) wishes, with the help of her architect stepfather Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan) and Greek hotel manager Fernando Cienfuegos (Andy Garcia); with invites to her two other "dads" Bill Anderson (Stellan Skarsgard) and Harry Bright (Colin Firth) and mom's old university pals Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters).

With her husband Sky (Cooper) far away doing a hotel management course in New York and contemplating over a permanent job offer there that puts a strain on their relationship, Sophie reminisces in flashbacks on the summer of her conception when a younger Donna (James) decides to bum around Europe after graduating from Oxford, if nothing to just to defy her estranged cabaret star mother Ruby (Cher) back in America.

As the film goes back and forth on unexpected setbacks for Sophie on getting the hotel up and running to Donna and her three summer flings all experiencing adventure, surprises, romance and heartbreak along the way that lead her to a crumbling villa on Kalokairi that someday will become her home, hearth and eternal optimism for the future.

Writer/director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel series), taking the reins from original director Phyllida Lloyd; works around a frothy direction and recycling classic ABBA tunes used from the first one, as well as other hit songs ("One of Us") and obscure B-sides ("Why Did It Had to Be Me?") thrown in the soundtrack which really props up the film; in order to make you forget some of the slight plot holes -- which I won't reveal here -- and semi-wobbly dance choreography along the way.

A couple of things going for Here We Go Again are the original and new cast members (except for Brosnan; who still can't carry a tune to save his own life, let alone do light comedy) and their younger counterparts keeping the laughs going, in particular to Lily James carrying the same spirited energy and song as Streep would have done with sweet naivety along with her roomies (Jessica Keenan Wynn, Alexa Davies).

While Jeremy Irvine as the young Sam and Hugh Skinner as the young Harry are both naturally funny with Josh Dylan's young Bill being the better and hotter singer between them; it's kind of a toss-up on who the real winning show-stealer here is: the ever-flamboyant Cher as Sophie's absentee grandmother pouring it all out heart and soul in her performance, or the Greek customs officer played by British stand-up comic Omid Djalli in very brief yet dryly humorous moments. Either way, both of them are real treats.

For those willing to suspend their disbelief over the storyline and its eye-rolling corniness, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again will definitely appeal to fans of the last movie, as well as ABBA and film musical lovers with its laughable moments and infectious soundtrack to sing along to. And since Cher will soon be releasing an ABBA covers album and the original Swedish pop quartet will return with a (one-time) virtual reality reunion concert special and two brand new tunes later on this year, why not simply just enjoy the ABBA-mania ride with this film, too?

Peacocks and huddled masses occupy the Artsport

Sean Martindale's "Home Turfed" addresses homelessness in major cities favouring luxury condos, while Ola Volo's capricious "The Peacock's Tale" (upper-left background) mural takes over the grounds of Harbourfront Centre's World Cafe.

Harbourfront Centre Summer Exhibitions: Sean Martindale: Multiple installations/Craft Studio: Forty-Four/Ola Volo: The Peacock's Tale

Venue: Artsport Gallery, Harbourfront Centre Artsport, 235 Queen's Quay West

Dates/Times: Through September 16 (except for "Home Turfed," "TENT: Life-Like Living," and "Love the Future/Free Ai Weiwei"; until this Sunday (June 29) ) ; Tuesday-Thursday, Weekends and civic holiday Mondays 12-6 p.m. (Fridays 12-8 p.m.)

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

Gallery Review

Part 2 of a 2-part series

Allowing the award-winning multidisciplinary artist Sean Martindale to do a widespread layout of installations and displays in and around Harbourfront Centre's Artsport area for just one solo artist (with one collaborative exception) is the boldest first for the arts complex in many years that aren't too hard to spot in addressing a few subject matters that are endemic in society as a whole that are just as unavoidable.

First off, the largest outdoor installation is "Home Turfed" (viewing 24/7) occupying the North Orchard area is his strongest piece of a 137-metre high Astroturf-covered figure huddled like a sleeping homeless person -- and more ironically emphasized by a real-life homeless guy around the corner from it when I reviewed it at the time (as well as being surrounded in a downtown area littered with such structures) -- surrounded by disused condo sales sandwich signs of how major cities, especially Toronto; have sacrificed affordable housing for all and succumbed to the condo-crazed culture that now prevails of the manufactured lifestyles it promotes.

And to hammer this point further, its satirical companion piece "TENT: Life-Like Living" located in Ontario Square consisting of a tent "city" advertising outdoor living includes a sales centre of sorts, adds a bitter afterword on the subject as being located far away from its satellite sculpture as something to be kept as a hidden and invisible eyesore for the privileged few who can afford such luxuries.

In the SHOP showcase window is "Love the Future/Free Ai Weiwei," Martindale's stoic cardboard tribute to the Chinese dissident artist-activist made from reclaimed cardboard boxes discarded from the central Chinatown area and some marked as Chinese-made products is a grandiose one surrounded with a red background to symbolize prosperity in its culture. While one may feel its title may be a little outdated since Ai, who'd been under house arrest for openly criticizing the Chinese government for many years; was released and allowed to go into a Berlin exile since 2015, the artwork doesn't deemphasize the point of universal rights for his fellow citizens unable to share the same newfound freedoms he's currently allowed to have.

Waste management takes the topical spotlight on the Sean Martindale/ J.P. King project "Our Desires Fail Us."

"Our Desires Fail Us," the video/photo collaborative effort in the Photo Passage area, with extensions outside on the York Quay Parking Garage tower walls in Ontario Square (viewing 24/7; through Spring 2019); with Governor-General Award-nominated artist/entrepreneur/educator/designer J.P. King addresses the inconsistencies with municipal waste management in global cities, despite the recycling measures that have been implemented over the last twenty-five years. The titular work displaying a mountain pile of waste in a garbage depot seems to show that our over-consumption have increased a multitude of times, as also seen in short films Solid Waste and the hypno-kaleidoscopic Wastefold. While environmentalism is not such a new subject, the work is a constant reminder to do a better effort on handling waste and curbing our materialistic needs for our world is a must.

Celebrating the Craft Studios' 44th anniversary residency in the Artsport, past and present members present new works Forty-Four found within its Craft Studio corridor and extended showcase area near the Lakeside Terrace space, are nothing less than impressive pieces on how they're progressing and have since progressed after finishing their three-year stays.

The felt-like indigo and wood leaves on wool textile "The Blues" by Thea Haines have a nice ambience that is almost unfairly sandwiched between Nick Chase's downright gorgeously blown and sandblasted "Sargasso Maple and Gold Maple" glass vases and the press-moulded earthenware "Lake of Fire" as Lindsay Montgomery's hellish interpretation on mythologies over death, mysticism and modes of power comes off very well, if frighteningly so.

Simplicity works well for the untitled pieces of Alexia Bilyk's African print-styled paper cut-outs and the ceramic stoneware of Laura Kukkee, as well as Loree Orens' gampi and woven thread sculpture "Lumos Particles." For something a little more exotic, view "Noise Maker" by Natalie Sirianni who manages to create this interesting hybrid of a wind chime and ball chain reactor made out of maple wood and stainless steel that compliment each other in the materials used for it.

Left-right: Janet Macpherson's"Dicephalous Deer";"Sargasso Maple and Gold Maple" by Nick Chase and Lizz Aston's "Watermelon Tourmaline" make part of the extensive line-up of Harbourfront Centre's Craft Studios' 44th anniversary show, Forty-Four.

Janet Macpherson uses slip-cast porcelain, gold lustre and underglaze to make the twin-headed sculpture "Dicephalous Deer" one of the exhibit's highlights in its composition and presentation at hand, while Lizz Aston fuses fibre-reactive dyes that so suits the title for the hand-cut Kozo paper piece "Watermelon Tourmaline" and roughen glasswork "Shadow Vases" where Blaise Campbell uses hot-applied glass powder onto the blown vases give it that glistening sparkle on the surface and a air of mystery of its own existence.

Rounding off are the folk porcelain pieces "Pinch Pattern Paint Porcelain (Pots)" has their own down-home whimsy courtesy of Marissa Alexander; "Two Tone" are Karli Sears' blown glass and LED lighting is very luminous for a light sculpture, even by its own standards; the pretty "Cherry Blossom Wall Brooch" by Susan Rankin welding steel, wire and flame-worked soft glass for a cherry blossom applique gives it a nice touch and Sally McCubbin manages to imprint a repeating cloverleaf pattern onto the surface of "Architectural Panel #1 - Textured Pattern and Colour Blocking" monochromatics to have an even balance and character.

Finally, the World Cafe gets a mural makeover by Kazakhstan-Canadian illustrator Ola Volo's The Peacock's Tale on her usage of tribal, flora and fauna motifs in blues, greys and yellows to fully express the subtleties of human nature and life's little surprises that matches the surrounding area's natural environs and as a venue for play, relaxation and learning in a welcoming manner.

EDITION #187 - WEEK OF JULY 16-22, 2018

The artistic point of perseverance

Harbourfront Centre launches its first-ever festival on the risk and failure in the creative process, Brave.

Arts Feature

Sometimes it takes the right film director to get the right vision to make the film work (worst example: Ron Howard replacing Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, for the more recent release, Solo: A Star Wars Story) or the best plan to execute the best stage production (worst example: Paul Simon's ambitious 1990s Broadway musical The Capeman). But even the best laid plans can fall to pieces when the audience or view fails to react positively to it, and whatever lessons learned from it can be studied and restudied for oneself and/or for others.

Such is the directive of Harbourfront Centre's newest festival to fill their summertime roster, Brave: The Festival of Risk and Failure as launched this past weekend (July 12) and over the next three weeks on artisans from Toronto and around the world including platinum-selling pop singer/songwriter and author Bif Naked (July 20), Egyptian comic and social commentator Bassem Youssef (July 26) who came to prominence during the Arab Spring in ticketed events; plus free art events featuring First Nations feminist dance company Wahine Toa - Warrior Women (July 22), the Ai Weiwei-directed human migration documentary Human Flow (July 27), the long-awaited return of legendary Zimbabwean rebel singer/activist Thomas Mapfumo & The Blacks Unlimited (July 29) and art exhibitions onsite (more on that later in this issue).

Harbourfront Centre Director of Cultural Engagement Laura McLeod speaks at the July 12 opening reception for Harbourfront Centre's summer exhibit and discusses its latest festival, Brave: The Festival of Risk and Failure.

During the arts centre's annual summer exhibits opening night reception on July 12, Harbourfront Centre Director of Cultural Engagement Laura McLeod, who put together the festival explained that: "One could make an argument about the four pillars of democracy -- executive, judiciary, legislative and media -- now need to identify a fifth: art. In my team, no one owns an idea around our table. We debate, we laugh and dig deep personally to bring the fest to our stages and our spaces.

"Bravery is the strength to face fear and danger; it demands risking failure in order to defy the expected and succeed. Brave: The Festival of Risk and Failure asks this question: 'If all we have to fear is fear itself, why be afraid?'

"We present Brave because the way tomorrow's ideas happen is to present them today. This takes courage and forming truth to power. The artists you see here [at the festival] are fearless and defiant. Some are flamethrowers, others were exiled from their homes and native lands. All of them disrupt authority for a living with tears and pain, but still they persist. The brave, they have much to teach us."

"How we program on our site over the next three weeks is very much a call-and-response. I stand before you as an audience member just like you, and it is my personal challenge to you to unlock your fear, be brave, take a risk and the very least, celebrate the artists who are doing just that. I am also...a non-artist and my disc, my brain, is full: memory loss, exhaustion, push-pull from my parents and my kids...and I don't even have the pressure-slash-desire to create [anything]. At that layer and my wires, which surely [had] melt.

"How brave is the Feminist Photography Network exhibited in this (Artsport) Gallery are tonight?" McLeod said, as she admonished the artwork around her. "Not just framing their artistic results, through a female lens, but also share the process it took to get there? To reveal a struggle, a moment of self-doubt is seen as some as a sign of weakness but to the ten artists from four different countries who chased that moment of clarity revealing their process and eliminates for us the everyday challenges of artistic production.

"Artists, dare I say, feminist artists I think are our modern-day canaries; we must listen. As Virginia Woolf said 'a feminist is a woman who tells the truth about her life' and now more than ever, we need truth."

"The Brave Festival is about giving space to artists who through their practice, try to innovate and, maybe, fail," McLeod concluded. "And while we personally face all our fears, [be it] virtual reality from extraordinary heights, [or] dancing in public and receive remedies from the tune of poetry and storytelling as we, at the end of the festival, hear from artists who have the courage to perform truth to power."

***

Brave: The Festival of Risk and Failure continues through to July 29. For tickets and information, call 416-973-4000 or harbourfrontcentre.com/brave.

Exhibiting the femme and marketing trials and errors

Stacey Tyrell doesn't mince about the colonial history of the West Indies as part of the Feminist Photography Network's Exchanges: Dialogue, Hesitation & Creation exhibit showing at Harbourfront Centre's Artsport Gallery.

Harbourfront Centre Summer Exhibitions: Exchanges: Dialogue, Hesitation & Creation/Museum of Failure

Venue: Artsport Gallery, Harbourfront Centre Artsport, 235 Queen's Quay West

Dates/Times: Through September 16; Tuesday-Thursday, Weekends and civic holiday Mondays 12-6 p.m. (Fridays 12-8 p.m.)

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

Gallery Review

Part 1 of a 2-part series

Founded in 2015, the Canada-Scotland grassroots artist collective Feminist Photography Network's mission is to continue women's engagement with and with the interrogation of photography. And in the wake of the #MeToo movem