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

NOTE: There will be no blog entry for the week of August 1-7 in observance of Simcoe Day (Ontario)/Civic Holiday (Canada except Québec). The blog will return on August 8. My apologies for any inconvenience and thank you for your support. It is truly appreciated and see you back soon! - JB

Updated: July 25, 2016

EDITION #98 - WEEK OF JULY 25-31, 2016

Eighties-themed Shrew earns some rep

The Taming of the Shrew (Driftwood Theatre)

Withrow Park, 25 Logan Avenue

Tuesday, July 19; 7:30 p.m.

Theatre Review

There are many interpretations that can be made for and into any Shakespeare play, even four hundred years since his death, show the longevity of his theatrical works are. For the Driftwood Theatre Group touring road show The Bard’s Bus Tour going across Ontario on its twentieth anniversary season, they’ve put a 1980s vibe to his complex romantic-comedy The Taming of the Shrew to give some resonance to today’s world in some workable respect for the company’s week-long residency at Toronto’s Withrow Park.

Substituting Ontario places for Italy, this Shrew is set in the summer of 1989 and prankster Lucentio (Fiona Sauder) and his manservant Tranio (Paolo Santalucia) arrive into Toronto for its Pride festivities when they just happen to witness wealthy businesswoman Baptista (Renée Hackett) arguing with two suitors Hortensio (Drew O’Hara) and Gremio (Tahirih Vejdani) over her youngest daughter’s hand Bianca (also Vejdani).

Also arriving on the same time from Hamilton is Petruchio (Geoffrey Armour) who’s looking for a wife and learns from old pal Hortensio that no one can wed Bianca unless her spirited elder sister Katherine (Siobhan Richardson) – the shrew – is married first, for whom she’s announced she will not for any man.

As a challenge and to help out Hortensio, he takes onto the uneasy seduction of Katherine, while lovelorn Lucentio enters the fray as a suitor for Bianca as her language teacher as Tranio impersonates Lucentio. Before long, wedding bells ring for Petrucio and Katherine during the Pride Day parade in an outlandish fashion and their dominance/submissive relationship stretches itself and themselves to its limits, as further calamity reigns where mistaken identities clashes with a battle of wits between the battle of the sexes.

Driftwood does a light-hearted take with Shrew as a musical-comedy laced with classic Eighties pop hits from Pat Benatar to the Parachute Club, local references and a dosage of sexual innuendo to give it a fun two hour-plus run that gets a little uneven in the first-half but manages to pull through towards its third act that director/scenic designer D. Jeremy Smith manages to work with and by Tom Lillington’s a cappella arrangements.

The cast do their parts convincingly well with Richardson giving a sharp-tongued delivery with her performance, butting heads with Armour even when he’s dressed in a dominatrix outfit (long story) is a good foil to her Katherine; Santalucia does finely as a comic relief type that takes the physical humour more deftly than Sauder does.

Still, dramaturg Myekah Payne takes the unenviable task of slipping in a storyline trying to reflect a era when the global LGBTQ community was starting to make serious gains for societal acceptance and from the devastating emergence of the AIDS pandemic may wobble at times, yet it is a brave effort at that and its commendable. Entertainment-wise, The Taming of the Shrew does its job in bringing those elements together as inventive and compelling to sift the play’s proto-feminist ideologies around in the mix.

***

The Bard’s Bus Tour continues its Southern Ontario tour on a pay-what-you-can admission ($20 suggested) through August 14. For tickets and information, call 416-605-5132 or driftwoodtheatre.com.

Aquatic acrobats take the plunge

Left-right: Cyr wheel performer Angelica Bongiovonni and aerial strap acrobat Benjamin Courtenay discuss their trials and triumphs of training with water in the Cirque du Soleil production LÙZIA, opening in Toronto this week.

Four performers tell of their challenges of performing with water for Cirque du Soleil’s LÙZIA

Theatre Preview

Not all of the daring-dos seen in Cirque du Soleil involving highwire acts and crazy clown buffoonery that looks so easy to perform. In a new frontier to conquer, the Montréal-based company takes the ultimate plunge in LÙZIA, a dreamscape mélange of Mexico, by putting the element of water onstage for the first time in a touring big tent production as it prepares to make its Toronto debut this week (July 28) for a three-month stay. Needless to say, they have a young, eager and capable line-up of talent ready to bring what seems to be impossible possible.

So what is the attraction of wanting to run away to join the Cirque? “I started circus (training) when I was four years old,” said Cyr wheel artist Angelica Bongiovonni. “I was a hyperactive child and my mom found a circus class in my preschool (years) and I was in the L.A. Circus for a week when they were in town. So when I was seven years old, I was kind of a young ‘star.’”

One of the show’s main attractions is having to perform under a indoor “waterfall” curtain that meant to be a cenote or natural sinkhole as a connection to the Mayan spirit world that Bongiovonni has to work with fits right with her thinking, career- and experience-wise. “I had a lot of goals coming out of school to do festivals, to be in a small show with my friends. I didn’t know about how intimate a circus show can become,” she said. “The fact is that looking up, the water comes into your eyes gives you a perception that isn’t by sight, but by feeling.”

While that may seem hazardous in rolling around on stage with water, fellow Cyr wheel artist Rachel Salzman explained the new technology involved with the rubberized flooring that also captures the water to be later recycled for the next show. “Because of the graininess (of the flooring mat), the holes and texture for the rain to pass through it, we can’t do too much sliding on it because it’s kind of like a cheese grater. So it’s a whole different training for us, to learn how to do that.”

Soccer ball jugglers Laura Biondo and Aboubacar Traoré, representing Mexico’s obsession with the globally-loved sport of football; have their own takes in getting into Cirque and the challenge of performing under the rain curtain. “For me,” said Traoré, “it started with freestyle soccer. I started doing it a lot in the streets with my brother. For freestyle, outside is the stage, I’m free and I know the moves in the order I’m going to do them.

“This (show) is different, it’s choreographed and you need to adapt to your partner. At first it was a bit strange working with water because soccer and water don’t usually mix,” he adds with a chuckle.

“When I was a kid I did gymnastics,” Biondo said, “so I know what Cirque du Soleil was and this whole world, so in a way it’s kind of like a dream come true. I actually ended up setting into dance because I saw Cirque du Soleil and I wanted to be in the circus and there was no circus in New York growing up. It’s a whole new world of new opportunities and teaching me so many things.

“If you try to do some juggles underneath the water (wall), then the water does change the bounce of the ball,” she explains in the trick to what is the equivalent of taking a shower with a soccer ball, “which of course makes it much more slippery, so you really have to be careful [with it].”

For aerial straps acrobat Benjamin Courtenay, he gets the task of performing under the waterfall and with a pool that doubles the risk and difficulty. And yet he has developed a certain skill and discipline to maintain with constant water falling on him and splashing around his legs and feet below and retain a certain sense of humility while performing his act.

“When I joined circus school, I just wanted to explore other options and use my gymnastics background to my advantage,” Courtenay said. “And I guess, after a couple of years, I really started to like it and found a passion for it. In the world of gymnastics, it’s all about competition, it’s all about scores, [and] who’s better. There’s a fixed, definitive line of what is good and what is not good. Where in a circus, the door is a little bit left open to your interpretation.

“(LÙZIA is) the first show I’ve ever seen done with water. It’s still a little bit of an obstacle, I’m still getting used to it. Once you work with something and once you’re able to incorporate it with you and your movements, you can use it to your advantage,” he continues. “Very much at the beginning, it was definitely a hindrance, it was definitely something. It was raining down, technically, but now it’s something that is definitely helping me instead of holding me down.”

After its initial opening run in Montréal, LÙZIA has had their performers readied to take it on the road to show what they can do with a controlled rainfall and the acts that accompany it, learning from past experience from their other water-based show in Las Vegas, “O”, that is going with the flow and elasticity of the element and not trying to control it, which is what these four performers have primed themselves for, including with their audiences.

“Any opening night, you’re always nervous,” Bongiovonni admits. “People have a first, fresh regard on the show and you want to be good, you want to be perfect and it’s hard to be perfect with pressure. The water, it’s something that happens in nature and it happens in life, so I’m excited to explore that aspect in this act and this human feeling of, like, total freedom under this water.”

The others feel in the same respect in testing their mettle and talent in LÙZIA. “We’ve done a lot of exploring here and we’ve found a lot of very cool things, a lot of very interesting images in this creation period,” said Courtenay. “It’s really been fun. It’s taken awhile, but we’re getting somewhere of it. That’s what’s really cool to see that, too.”

“It’s really hard [to perform with water], but with training, you start to adapt to it,” added Traoré. “Before everything, we are artists and with time, artists can manage the stress (and) we learn. But I’m ready for challenges, (and) that’s why I’m here.”

***

LÙZIA begins its Toronto engagement this Thursday (July 28; NOTE: opening night is SOLD OUT) at the Port Lands (51 Commissioners Street). For tickets and information, call 1-877-924-7783 or visit cirquedusoleil.com/luzia.

Hondo’s Afro-Modern rare-view mirror

The Indocile Image: The Cinema of Med Hondo

Venue: TIFF Lightbox, 350 King Street West

Dates/Times: August 4-16; various screening times

Admission/Information: Regular $12.50, Students/Seniors $10, Children (under 12) $9. Call 416-599-8433 or tiff.net

Arts Feature

Maybe out of the good that came from French colonialism for its former African possession is the aesthetic and appreciation for film that has produced many pioneers that have contributed to world cinema. One of them gets a rare retrospective at TIFF Lightbox next month (August 4-16) for The Indocile Image: The Cinema of Med Hondo for their TIFF Cinematique series, where the 80-year old filmmaker himself also makes a rarer appearance in North America and will personally introduce a few of his best works on newly-struck 35mm prints for the week of August 4 to 7.

First, some background: Hondo was born in Mauritania in 1936 to a Senegalese mother and Mauritanian father and originally started out his career as a chef in Morocco and emigrated to France in 1959 to practice his craft, but like most Africans of that era (and still) were subjected to manual labour and racism. Like his other counterpart, the legendary Senegalese auteur Ousmane Sembène, he fell into filmmaking by accident by taking acting and directing classes under the tutelage of French actress Françoise Rosay and acting in Shakespearean and French plays. By 1966, he formed his own Griot-Shango theatre company dealing with the African experience along with Guadeloupean actor Robert Liensol, producing works by Guy Menga, Aimé Césaire, Daniel Boukman and René Depestre; showing another side of France that were previously unseen by its audiences.

Hondo has appeared in several films and television series in his adopted home of France such as Funky Cops and Asterix and the Vikings, plus voice-dubbed several American films since, mainly for Eddie Murphy from The Nutty Professor to the Shrek series, Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley and Danny Glover; until his falling out with him over a biopic project on Haitian Revolution leader Toussaint Louverture which he claimed the American actor stole from him the idea, script and directorial duties back in 1991, while Glover got financial backing from the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and an all-star lineup, but the film has yet to be realized.

Med Hondo’s treatise on the scars of slavery between Africa, Europe and the Americas in the rarely-seen West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty, done up as a historical stage musical, will be featured in his retrospective The Indocile Image: The Cinema of Med Hondo at TIFF Lightbox on August 5.

In between, his own film projects have won acclaim and awards since his 1965 debut masterpiece Soleil O (August 4), loosely based on his personal experiences; about a West African accountant who moves to France to fulfill his dreams, only to face the reality of racism and restriction; the 1979 historical-musical West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty (August 5) all shot on one stage aboard a slave ship being the symbolic focus of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the ugly legacies it carries; his most recent work, 2004’s Fatima, the Algerian Woman of Dakar (August 6), set in the aftermath of the Algerian War of Independence where a Senegalese veteran of the war makes restitution to the Algerian woman he raped and bore him his son which brought ostracization upon them.

Sarraounia, an African Queen (August 7) made in 1986 is based on the true story of a ruler who rallies up her people when French colonialism brings its troops to conquer them by military force; 1994’s Lumière noire (Black Light) is a modern drama-thriller where a aircraft engineer’s investigation over a young African deportee is hampered by political red tape and a police interference (August 9); 1998 xenophobic drama Wantani, a World Without Evil (August 13) looks at two Parisians, one white bank executive who gets laid-off and becomes drawn into an extreme right-wing fascist faction and a African immigrant looking for work after losing his garbage collector job and the 1978 geopolitical documentary Polisario, a People in Arms (August 16) that gives account to the mostly-forgotten liberation struggle of the Sahrawi of the Western Sahara for their small nation that has been occupied and annexed by Morocco since 1975.

Not a lot of films from African filmmakers come that often to conventional art-house cinemas, let alone get retrospectives (although The Indocile Image series was previously show at Carleton University in Ottawa this past spring). Hondo’s films, much like Sembène’s, expose the real truth of Africa’s relationship with past colonialism to current neocolonialist policies and immigration to the West, the collision of modernism versus traditionalism and the corruption of globalization and capitalism brings that raw edge world cinema fans will come to appreciate in this daring and introspective programme from a respected filmmaker.

EDITION #97 - WEEK OF JULY 18-24, 2016

Sext-Ed and Syrians upfront boundary-blurring theatre fest

A d’bi. young anitafrika double-bill and a sex-ed musical marks the 2016 SummerWorks Festival

Left-right: Coming to this year’s SummerWorks theatre festival this August are Gabriel Dharmoo’s award-winning solo video-mockumentary Imaginary Anthropologies, a humorous and disturbing exploration of post-colonialism, post-exoticism, cultural extinction, globalization, normalized racism and cultural appropriation; d.bi antiafrika with a concert and new theatrical offering and the inner-city musical/fantasy Nize It.

Theatre Preview

Summertime theatre doesn’t always have to be regulated to Shakespearean fares as SummerWorks can attest to for their twenty-sixth year bringing in sixty-nine performances in theatre, dance, performance art, workshops and talks in the Queen Street West district of the conventional and unconventional, to the cultural and political starting early next month (August 4 to 14) of mainly Canadian theatre, including just one exclusive North American premiere of a gay Beijing Opera production in Mandarin, Mr. Shi and His Lover in the Special Presentations section.

Among many highlights coming to the major festival venues of SummerWorks hub the Factory Theatre (Bathurst Street), The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West) and Scotiabank Studio Theatre (6 Noble Street), as well as to new venues the Artscape Sandbox (301 Adelaide Street West), The Drake Hotel and Drake Underground (both at 1150 Queen Street West) are the urban fantasy-drama Nize It, where a artistically talented African-Canadian youth initially surrenders his dreams of becoming a comic book artist, but forced to return in order to save his best friend and kid brother both facing real-life, separate dangers to learn about what heroism truly is to IN UTERO OUT, a shadow-puppet anthology play on embodiment seen in different perspectives about pregnancy and childbirth.

Trompe-la-Mort, or Goriot in the 21st Century asks the age-old question of over-reliance on technology in this techno-thriller when a anarchist is being chased with the entire world’s information in his possession by opportunist developers and a venture capitalist; female empowerment gets a historical examination and revisionism in Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife; the debate of the female body politic and its societal role arises for NAKED LADIES and the Rip van Winkle story gets a comical geopolitical twisting in Mohammad Yaghoubi’s A Moment of Silence about a Iranian woman who awakens after three decades to find her country has undergone a revolution, war and her personal life all in turmoil.

Renown dub poetess d’bi.young anitafrika is back with two projects for SummerWorks, starting with the Afro-futuristic drama Bleeders about a post-apocalyptic Toronto after the Pickering Nuclear Power Plant has exploded and a group of black women form a small council in order for their survival in the wake of government repression and the ecological disaster that has unfolded; and a one-night only revolutionary protest song concert re-imagined as D’BI & THE 333 on August 9 featuring Waleed Abdulhamid, Odel Johnson, Christopher Butcher and Patrick O’Reilly backing her up at the Scotiabank Studio Theatre.

Also returning to the fest is Adam Lazarus, the creator of The Art of Building a Bunker; with his one-man show Daughter running on the beauty and horrors of men raised in a patriarchal society who have to face the challenges of becoming fathers themselves and some family-friendly fare with the magic-realism musical about the Syrian refugee crisis and the complications of immigration and cultural displacement, Amanah, as presented by the Maple High School Drama department.

Nightwood Theatre’s Osia , as written by Djanet Sears and directed by Brad Fraser; looks at a Ghanaian family and its youngest member Harmosia retreating into her fantasy world when the new future for themselves proves a bit difficult at time; from Vancouver’s Hong Kong Exile company with local talent Conor Wylie comes eatingthegame about a West Coast motivational speaker, after giving a game-changing speech, sends him packing to Toronto execute his next wheel-and-deal movement; Basement Studio Project does a multimedia tribute to 1990s digital animations in Sound Circuitz and SExT gets the feedback on the Ontario sex education curriculum reform through skits, song-and-dance and poetry from immigrant youngsters who want to know what their traditionalist parents won’t tell them about sexuality, cyber-bullying, sexting and rape culture.

For more different fares, there’s the film studio theme park production Chase Scenes #1-58 by choreographer/creator Ming Hon about our obsession with film culture and paranoiac pursuit through real-time figures and dancers within the cinematic realms and the one-day performance art piece Trophy on August 6, a interactive art installation tents at the CAMH Grounds at Queen West and Shaw Streets (1001 Queen Street West) where a person tells a true story about a turning point in their life and interchanging between other tents either by swapping stories and/or watching its own evolution.

“This year’s programming reflects the values that I have long admired about the SummerWorks Performance Festival,” said incoming Artistic and Managing Director Laura Nanni. “The 2016 Festival continues to encompass a diverse representation of cultures and performance practices, it makes space for bold artistic experiments and collaboration, and enables professional development as well as meaningful engagement between artists and audiences.

“As our world, our country and how we define performance continues to evolve, SummerWorks continues to evolve with it and lead the charge in new approaches to how we present and experience performance. SummerWorks artists also continue to question, provoke and imagine new possibilities. I couldn’t be more excited to immerse myself in my first Festival as Artistic and Managing Director and to form deeper connections with Toronto audiences and the artistic community to learn how we as a festival can best serve their needs.”

***

Tickets now on sale. For information, visit summerworks.ca.

The Great White (Idea of) North

Left-right: “The Eaton Manufacturing Building,” “The Gas Works” and “Top of the Hill, Spadina Avenue” show an industrializing and expanding Toronto during the World War I years seen in The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris – as curated by Steve Martin – at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris

Venue: Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas Street West

Dates/Times: Through September 18; Tuesdays and Thursdays 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesdays and Fridays 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Weekends 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Admission/Information: Adult $19.50; Seniors $16, Students/Youth (6-17) $11, Child (under 5) and Wednesday evenings 6-9 p.m. FREE. Call 416-979-6648 or ago.net

Gallery Feature

Part 2 of a 2-part series

You’ve heard of celebrities backing everything from books, fragrances, clothing lines and such, but here’s a rarity in itself: curating a touring art exhibit. The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, as arranged and presented by actor/comedian/art enthusiast Steve Martin; takes in around thirty artworks by or influenced by Group of Seven alumnus Lawren Harris at the Art Gallery of Ontario into three staves of his career – In the Ward, iconic artic landscapes period The Idealized North and The New City – the former and latter sections focused on of then and now to reflect the changed contrasts of the Toronto scene to give us the city we once were and where we are now fits the venue and the theme given.

Mainly all oils on canvas, In the Ward has what Harris captured of early 20th-century Toronto going through industrialization as etched through his brushstrokes seen in “The Eaton Manufacturing Building,” where the present-day Eaton Centre now stands; and “Gas Works” are harsh and dirty as the urban centre is justly displayed. Yet he’s able to absorb the suburbia with kinder eyes like “Winter in the Ward” and “Row of Six Houses, Back View, City Painting III” has a nice usage of pastels and the thickness of the oils to get the heaviness of the snow that’s also seen in “Rear of Houses, Francis Street” and “Houses, St. Patrick Street.”

Left-right: A sample of pastel works by Lawren Harris (“Snowfall”; “Row of Six Houses, Back View, City Painting III”; “In the Ward”).

Never losing the momentum of a growing city and its diversification, works as “Snowfall” and “In the Ward” sticks heavy on the purples and blues and a everyman figure looking on adds to the environs, much as “Top of the Hill, Spadina Avenue” relies more on the earth tones and greys makes you realize how underdeveloped parts of this city really was then is a eye-opener.

Lawren Harris the poet: A touch of words accompanies a painting at The Idea of North exhibit.

The works that made Harris a legend seen in The Idealized North may lay heavily on the stereotype of the Canadian wilderness to most of the world (and to ourselves), the majestic beauty remains be it in the lone weathered tree stump of “North Shore, Lake Superior” or “In Buchanan Bay, Ellesmere Island” as the change in technique and presentation in being more abstract, including the graphite sketches, to the really gorgeous examples are the overlapping clouds overtaking the landscape in “Lake and Mountains,” “Untitled (Mountains Near Jasper)” and “Mountains in Snow: Rocky Mountains Paintings VII.”

Left-right: “Untitled (Mountains Near Jasper)”; “Mountain Forms” and “Mountains in Snow: Rocky Mountain Paintings VII” – the abstract landscape works that defined Lawren Harris, the Group of Seven and our nation.

Although The Idea of North on Harris’ end concludes with 1936’s “Poise (Composition 4)” laying the inspirational seed of the vision of the future City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square quite briefly, it continues with local contemporary artists Martin allows to participate and add weight of our daily city lives.

Clockwise from left: Local artists influenced by Harris add their part to The Idea of North exhibit with Tin Can Forest’s animated visuals “Lawren Harris’ Theosophical Dream”; “Ice Forms” by videographers Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier; Nina Bunjevac’s sketches of Toronto and Harris’ 1936 “Poise (Composition 4)” envisioned a futuristic City Hall.

This is clearly seen in cartoonist Nina Bunjevac’s crosshatching shades and clean linear art of our urban crawl “The Observer: The Ascent, Dundas Subway, Sunny Days;” photographer Anique Jordan on the African-Canadian experience of her re-imagining of the British Methodist Episcopal Church, “Mas’ at 94 Chestnut” of churchgoers in Victorian dress and African aesthetics blended in the composition, situated next to Harris’ “Dr. Salem Bland;” the animated shorts created by Pat Shewchuk and Marek Colek under the banner of Tin Can Forest in a trio of Harris’ fictionalized dreams based on Slovak art, occult folklore and the Canadian boreal forest “Isis Unveiled/Lawren Harris’ Theosophical Dream/A Divine Comedy” are quirky and bright and as a finishing tribute, the Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier looping video project “Ice Forms” recalls Harris’ artic landscape for all its surrealism of the American Falls at Niagara Falls beautifully.

Martin certainly gets the flavour of Canada and a national treasure like Harris for The Idea of North without having to resort to patronizing notions, taking the approach with structured and clear intelligence in the displays and work shown. In a way, the exhibit reintroduces us to what treasures we have with our artists and their works they’ve left for us.

EDITION #96 - WEEK OF JULY 11-17, 2016

Urban jungle follies

The Secret Life of Pets (Universal)

Voice Talents: Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate

Directors: Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney

Producers: Christopher Meledandri and Janet Healy

Screenplay: Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch and Cinco Paul

Film Review

Looking to move away from the Despicable Me franchise they’ve created for themselves, Illumination Entertainment breaks the mould with the adventure-comedy, The Secret Life of Pets that’s enough to give Pixar and Disney a run for their money with the same level of sharp and character-driven writing, not to mention throwing down the gauntlet at those animated powerhouses for coming up with a funnily entertaining and original film, plus getting into the shorts category (more on that later).

A Jack Russell terrier named Max (C.K.) lives quite happily with his human Katie (Ellie Kemper) in a New York City apartment building along with his fellow pet pals, portly feline Chloe (Lake Bell), dachshund Buddy (Hannibal Buress), Mel the pug (Bobby Moynihan) and the pampered Pomeranian Gidget (Slate) with a secret crush on Max; who clandestinely engage in human-like behaviour much like their owners behind closed doors during daylight hours.

Max’s idyllic life gets turned around when Katie comes home one night with Duke (Stonestreet), a huge, slovenly mongrel from the streets who’s cramping up his domain and it becomes a territorial dispute between them on who’ll be the alpha canine. During a routine walk to a dog park, Duke drags the conflict and Max into the backstreets of Manhattan, losing their collars to feral alley cats and gets into all sorts of misadventures; including a fateful encounter to a underground world of abandoned pets, led by the psychotic revolutionary rabbit Snowball (Hart) plotting the downfall of humanity.

Discovering that Max and Duke haven’t returned back with their dog walker, Gidget gathers up their friends that include the hunting hawk Tiberius (Albert Brooks) and a crusty elderly, wheel-chaired basset hound Pops (Dana Carvey) to scour New York high and low before all their humans return at dusk. As the two canines try to survive the unfamiliar inner-city environs and escape Snowball’s obsessive wrath, they slowly rely on each other in order to find the way back home.

The filmmakers hit a sweet spot with the basic animal zaniness – and there’s plenty of it – as one would expect from a film like this, yet produce a lesson about respect and loyalty that has to be earned through the colourful animation and situations created, as well as some funny moments from a dead-on lampoon of YouTube cat video antics with Chloe; Max and Duke blissfully lost within a musical-fantasy dream sequence in a sausage factory involving Grease ’s “We Go Together” to the metal head-banging poodle Leonard who deserves his own short on its DVD/Blu-Ray/digital download release.

C.K. offers a centered, down-home feel to Max having to learn how to share living space and Katie’s heart; Stonestreet’s lonely Duke has a sense of wanting to belong somewhere; Bell giving a self-centered, if conscience-conflicted performance out of Chloe and Slate’s delightful mixture of sheltered naïveté, unrequited love and determination, but Hart clearly nails it as the bitter ex-magician’s rabbit with a destructive madness streak and oddball mood swings who makes Batman’s Joker look like Ronald McDonald, only fluffier and funnier.

Moments of tenderness will tug on the kids’ and adults’ heartstrings who will highly enjoy The Secret Life of Pets, as much it will with the subtle (and not-so subtle) physical humour and for those looking for a respite from a certain cartoon fish dominating the summer family box office. Preceding short Mower Minions has the kooky yellow Despicable Me clowns engaged in Keystone Kops-like silliness as they start their own lawn maintenance services to a retirement home in order to buy a banana blender. Fairly predictable slapstick laughs ensure, but at least it’s pretty hilarious.

Martin lauds over Harris’ mountains

Renaissance man entertainer Steve Martin discusses about his curator project at the Art Gallery of Ontario, The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris

Left-right: Actor/comedian Steve Martin chatting with Art Gallery of Ontario’s Fredrik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art Andrew Hunter at the gallery’s Baillie Court at a June 28 media conference; and Harris’ 1923 oil on beaverboard work, “Pic Island.”

Gallery Feature

Part 1 of a 2-part series

Many know him from his “wild and crazy guy” days on the stand-up circuit from the 1970s and madcap comedies of the 1980s like The Man with Two Brains, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and All of Me before graduating to the more smarter, sensible fares of Pennies from Heaven (a rare dramatic turn), Roxanne, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Bowfinger.

Few know him as a magician, playwright, author and bluegrass musician, but just perhaps a handful knows about Steve Martin being a fine art aficionado with his own collection of paintings. Now he shares this passion over Group of Seven member Lawren Harris in his first – and as he vows, his only – curatorial touring art show, The Idea of North at the Art Gallery of Ontario after successful American stops in Los Angeles and Boston.

Sitting down for a media conference late last month in the AGO with Fredrik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art Andrew Hunter, for whom he developed The Idea of North with for three years; at the gallery’s Baillie Court space as a extension of the previous talk he gave at Roy Thomson Hall on June 22, Martin discussed on how different and political the Toronto viewing is from the shows seen in the United States.

“The idea of the show was to present Lawren Harris [to American audiences]. I’m a fan of his work and the opportunity came up and I’ve never curated before and I’ll never do it again, not because I didn’t have a great time [doing it], because nobody needs me,” he quipped. “There are many great curators, but Lawren Harris and America was a very special case. Because I loved his work, like I was the only person that knew of him and I was really excited in bringing this body of work to America. It was very successful and I was just thinking that in Boston, people came in throngs to see the show. There was great talk and great press coverage and great attendance. And there were great book sales!”

Martin never doubted for a moment that The Idea of North would be a success despite the fact that Harris, considered a national treasure up here was a relative unknown to his fellow patriots in the States unlike their other contemporary painters they’re produced, like Louise Bourgeois, Larry Zox or Jackson Pollock; and the prospect of next generations viewers and artists to feel the impact of his work. “I have an artist friend, Eric Fisshel, and he was talking about something else of late and said ‘Different art forms respond in different time frames to events.’

“For example, 9/11,” he opined; “a lot of essays were written (and) photographs, but the art world is still yet responding [to it]. Like art works about Hiroshima (atomic bombing) came way after the event and it takes time to absorb. But it takes time for the artist to absorb for what they’ve seen, young artists I’m talking about; it takes time to absorb it, to analyse it and regurgitate it into some kind of new forms, so that’s yet to be seen.”

Martin’s first encounter with Harris’ work came from a book for which he initially mistook for a Hilma af Klint painting. After meeting with noted Toronto art collector Kim Thompson, who had access to some of the AGO’s collection whilst under its huge renovation a few years back in a storage room where he got the feeling “of being jealous and awestruck at the same time”; that he became more acquainted with and has two small Harris works in his own personal collection. “Slowly, as I pursued to who he was and seeing pictures of his, I thought: ‘You know what? I discovered this guy!’ But I was disappointed to learn that he was already completely famous in Canada.”

One of the many paintings Group of Seven giant Lawren Harris created in his Toronto series “Houses, St. Patrick Street” in 1922, presented in part by Steve Martin for his curated show The Idea of North now showing at the AGO.

He also discussed the complexity of how laying out an exhibit for one such as Harris can bring an unexpected perspective of the work and artist himself with a relatively serious face. “When you’re going to do an important show of an artist, what you don’t know is how [the artwork is] all going to look together, will it be impactful as you think it is? Because there might be some weaker paintings or stronger pictures, or was there enough (works) and absolutely there was. And this show had had this incredible force when you saw all the paintings together, it’s not like seeing one alone, it’s like a very different experience.

“And also hung here is, you know, there’s these little panels that Harris painted,” Martin continued. “They’re referred to as sketches, but I think we’ve understood that they’re way more than sketches; they’re very finished paintings there in many, many cases. And here most of them are all hung in one room and you really get the feeling that you understand how important these little panels are to his body of work.”

Another revelation Martin points out in The Idea of North are the other ranges of colours Harris used other than the basic whites and blues that most Canadians and Group of Seven fans associate with. “We’ve finally understood like that painting of Pic (Island), the island was actually purple. It took a while to see that,” he chuckled in retrospect, “it just looked dark.”

Hunter asked Martin whether he personally wished that Harris did continue these particular landscape paintings into his later life, but he dismissed this notion completely, “because that’s what an artist has to do. I mean, he painted in this style, what I’m talking about the artic and Rocky Mountains and Lake Superior style; for fifteen years and that’s a pretty good run, and I can see that he needed and wanted to change. Some artists paint the same thing their whole lives like Chagall and some artists paint something new every five or ten years like Picasso. It’s just a different nature of the artist.”

The comedic legend also took a moment to remember fond memories of Toronto during his salad days to shooting films like the Cheaper by The Dozen remakes in more recent times to working with Canadian funny men Eugene Levy, Martin Short and the late John Candy. “I came here first during the late Sixties, early Seventies as a comedy writer to work on some television shows which none of you will remember,” Martin reminisced to the media, “like The Ray Steven Show, Kim Barry’s Wow! Show and I did a show here in the early Seventies that was a half-hour show called The Funnier Side of Eastern Canada (click here for the link). And I was a young comedian who got hired for this (gig) and I kept saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to (call it) The Funnier Side of Canada?’ because Eastern Canada is very specific. And they said, ‘Well, it’s sponsored by Air Canada and they (didn’t) fly to Vancouver (then).’”

***

The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris is currently at the AGO (317 Dundas Street West) through September 18. For tickets and information, call 416-979-6648 or ago.net.

EDITION #95 - WEEK OF JULY 4-10, 2016

Walking tall

The BFG (Walt Disney)

Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jermaine Clement

Director: Steven Spielberg

Producers: Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall and Sam Mercer

Screenplay: Melissa Mathison; based on the children’s novel by Roald Dahl

Film Review

It’s been a very long time since Steven Spielberg dabbed into lighter fares with his cinematic palette and he hasn’t lost his touch (much) for the adventure-fantasy The BFG, based on the 1982 kid-lit classic by Roald Dahl, in getting all the whimsical charm and dark humour the author would be amused with in this onscreen adaptation crafted with a certain amount of respect.

Roaming the hallways at night of a London orphanage is Sophie (Barnhill), the unofficial guardian during the witching hour with a tough and brave attitude, if only as a façade; against the things that go “bump” until one night she’s snatched by a big-eared giant (Rylance) and spirited away to his domain in the far-off Land of the Giants. Initially believed she’ll be gobbled up by him, she finds that he’s a gentle and shy vegetarian who eats bitter-tasting snozzcumbers and drinks a powerfully gassy brew called frobscottle that gets him all “whizpopping,” as he calls it.

Nicknamed by her as the BFG – Big Friendly Giant – Sophie also learns that her newfound pal is picked on by much bigger and meaner giants led by Fleshlumper (Clement) and his gang (calling him the “runt” of the group, ironically) who go around snatching and devouring kids at night and getting into all sorts of frat-boy antics when they’re not snoozing the day away. Discovering that BFG has a talent of concocting and harnessing dreams which he later injects them into people’s subconscious in their sleep, she and BFG come up with a plan that will hopefully put a end to their reign of terror, courtesy of the Queen of England (Wilton); before the bullies learn of their scheme.

Considering this year marks Dahl’s birth centennial, the film is a fitting tribute not only to the beloved author, it’s also one to the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who also wrote Spielberg’s other masterwork E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial – and for whom the film is dedicated to in memorandum – of her understanding of Dahl’s onomatopoeia with BFG’s dialogue and twisted sense of schadenfreude to the bad guys’ comeuppances when they come, she remained faithful to. Although it was kind of unnecessary to be too faithful in staying dated to a couple of 1980s references in the book that could be lost on today’s kids (I won’t spoil it here), otherwise the script and storyline is fine.

The director slips easily back into the fantasy game he hasn’t done since 1991’s Hook with the wide-eyed innocence that frankly has been missing from his work and the genre in general, even if he’s a bit apprehensive to go the full nine yards that make it look like a little rust is showing in handling BFG but at least he still has it in him. As always, he brings out fine performances from Rylance, whom he had directed in last year’s Bridge of Spies and earned him an Oscar for it as the titular biggie with a worldly, genteel manner; newcomer Barnhill as the courageous young orphan that coaxes BFG to be brave while looking for it herself with smarts and charisma without falling into those atypical precocious heroic kids that usually dominate Spielberg’s fares (see Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom and Jurassic Park: The Lost World) and Wilton does her regal best being the accommodating British monarch, especially during one of the film’s funniest moment after taking a sip of frobscottle in a toast at Buckingham Palace, including the corgis; that’s… best left to the imagination.

Along with long-time collaborators John Williams providing a gorgeous score and Janusz Kaminski creating the rich and plentiful cinematography – the Dream Country sequence is a personal best here – The BFG provides a wondrous and entertaining family fare escape among the clutter of bombastic summertime cinema and overdone sequelitis (Finding Dory excluded), plus it could reintroduce Dahl back into children’s bookcases before J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter craze did.

Franti spreads the love, steppin’ out with Jackson

2016 Toronto Jazz Festival Reviews

Part 2 of a 2-part series

Jim Galloway’s Wee Big Band

Toronto Star Stage, Nathan Phillips Square, 100 Queen Street East

Friday, July 1; 12:30 p.m.

It doesn’t feel like it’s been over a year since jazz legend and Toronto Jazz Festival co-founder Jim Galloway passed on, yet his legacy other than the music fest still remains with his Wee Big Band that continues intermittingly under the direction of rhythm guitarist Martin Loomer, along with some of the originals like bassist/former spouse Rosemary Galloway and pianist Ralph Frasier still going strong at age 91. On an overcast Canada Day that before long turned into a torrential downpour (see festival summary), their performance was as clean and simple as it got.

Sticking to mainly Duke Ellington to the playlist, Luder weaved his own stories in between tunes just like Galloway did – minus the puns – starting off with the Ellington standbys “Stompy Jones,” “Main Stream,” “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” “Cottontail” and “Lost in Meditation,” they allowed a little Harry James for “One On the House” with a nice robust finish to go with the ensemble crescendos aided along with trumpeter Steve Crow and saxophonist Dave Cauldwell.

Other performers that took command were lead trombonist Rob Summerville on “Sultry Serenade” and a bright new talent on saxophone Alison Young with her follow over the ballad “Where or When” and during “Stompy Jones.” Among the tributes in the hour-long program went to the late arranger Howard Cable who died earlier this year with the band’s take of “Goosey Gander” given with a bluesy smooth ease to its quirky little ending and what couldn’t be more Canadian by playing Ellington’s “Beaver Junction” for such an occasion than this?

Ending on a good closer with the quick-paced “Lunceford Special,” wherever Galloway is now he can rest assured that his Wee Big Band is in good hands with Loomer heading the ensemble to maintain old jazz traditions as he intended to and hopefully will be for years to come.

Michael Franti & Spearhead

Toronto Star Stage, Nathan Phillips Square, 100 Queen Street East

Friday, July 1; 8:30 p.m.

Spreading his “miracle activism” on a main stage stop here, folk-rocker Michael Franti and his band Spearhead spread the love and positive vibes in opening numbers “Hey Hey Hey” and popular hit “The Sound of Sunshine” by turning the main stage tent into a mega-party with oversized lemon yellow balloons and kids bouncing onstage with him and “Get Myself to Saturday” afterwards.

His performance, barefoot and all, hasn’t changed all that much since his last appearance in Toronto for Luminato some years back, but it certainly is a far cry when I first saw him as a opening act during the 1992 U2 Zoo Tour with his first group, the seminal industrial hip-hop duo The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, that was more darker and cynical with such tunes like their classic “Television, the Drug of the Nation.”

Still, it’s one of those fun shows that one can take families to when he can get both young and old to jam together, including a duet with special guest dancehall reggae artist Sharon Anderson with “Little Bit of Riddim’”; and praising his Canadian audience over their progressiveness in contrast to his fellow Americans and its current political landscape of creeping divisionism and xenophobia in the year of elections.

Other songs dominated the night like “We Are All Earthlings;” a love song to Franti’s Canadian wife Sarah, who was in the audience, “Life is Better With You;” a humble shout-out for his eldest son “I Got Love For You;” slower number “11:59” was a brief return to his rapper days then getting semi-acoustic for “Once A Day” to closing things up with an appeal for tolerance and equality about his own upbringing with his adopted Finnish-American family, wedged with a indirect reference to the recent Orlando Pulse shootings, with “My Lord.”

Some would consider all this a bit of a overkill with all this positivism going around, but considering the times that we live in you can’t go completely wrong with Franti ending “Little Bit of Riddim’” with “wise men count their blessings and fools count their problems,” is quite a philosophy to impart onto for daily living.

Eric St-Laurent Trio

Mill St. Brew Pub Beer Hall Patio, Rack House Mews, 55 Mill Street

Saturday, July 2; 5 p.m.

Popping out tropical beats and African polyrhythms with soft rock-jazz sounds was the mainstay for the Eric St-Laurent Trio with the lead on guitar, bassist Jordan O’Connor and percussionist Michel DeQuevedo with added keyboardist Attila Fias to the patio patrons and the passers-bys in their two-set gig at the Distillery Historic District watering hole on a much brighter day amongst the reddish-brown bricked buildings for some light entertainment to accompany the late afternoon.

Hints of Chet Atkins and Wes Montgomery could be heard in original material and contemporary covers of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” and Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” infused with some salsa undertones as done by DeQuevedo. Most interesting and curious was St-Laurent taking a ditty like “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” by slipping in a Mark Knopfler-like groove during the broadcast of a EuroCup game that almost got drowned out by the goal cheers, but at least the band’s presence was appreciated at the venue.

Joe Jackson

Toronto Star Stage, Nathan Phillips Square, 100 Queen Street East

Saturday, July 2; 8:45 p.m.

A man of many musical hats he’s shifted over four decades of recording and a bit of an iconoclast to the conformities of the money-driven music industry, Joe Jackson started his concert with a few solo numbers on keyboards before bringing on his touring back-up band of longtime bassist Graham Maby, Teddy Kumpel on guitar and drummer Doug Yowell with a few familiars “It’s Different for Girls,” “Home Town,” “Be My Number Two” and the title track from his new release Fast Forward (Caroline/UMG), about a semi-optimistic perspective on the difficulties of the world today, that got things going in the right direction.

Basically a set that went with the crowd-pleasers to brand new songs over a good 90 minutes, ‘70s pop classics “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”, “So Close” and the ‘80s jazz-pop winner “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want).” From Fast Forward , that was meant to be a four-track EP project that turned into a album in four parts recorded in New York, Amsterdam, New Orleans and his current home of Berlin; Jackson had a lot of poise and command in telling stories through his music with “A Little Smile” and “Kings of The City,” a song about the experiences of culture shock and understanding the rhythm of moving to a large city, plus giving a little honky-tonk for “Keep On Dreaming” and a rock re-imagining of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

Doing his what he called his “song de jour” by pulling a random tune out of a hat, he belted out a pretty good cover of ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and was well received playing a melodica near-end for “Stormy Rivers.” Doing a slower, cooler rendition of his biggest hit “Steppin’ Out” was a stroke of genius to closing out with a hard rocking “Ready to Go” and quieter solo piano run on “A Slow Song,” Jackson retains his sense of sensibility and open rebellion for a packed tent that welcomed him.

FESTIVAL SUMMARY

Light on the jazz and leaning more on the popular sounds, it wasn’t all that bad on the line-up for this year’s festival; other than the only sour note of having the July 1 JAZZ-FM 91 Youth Big Band concert being cancelled at the last minute due to sudden inclement weather. Being that this is their thirtieth anniversary and that it’s managed to survive this long is a triumph in itself by keeping a balanced mix and open mind ensures the event to continue for hopefully another thirty years. It may no longer have the luxury of getting exclusively the jazz greats (and unknowns) on a regular basis; at least one can never say that the favourite summertime music event is ever boring.