A veteran photojournalist on the Toronto 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.

EDITION #43 - WEEK OF APRIL 27-MAY 3, 2015

Bigger, darker, (yet shyly better) Avengers sequel

Avengers: Age of Ultron (Marvel Studios/Walt Disney)

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson

Writer/Director: Joss Whedon; based on the Marvel comic book series by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee

Producer: Kevin Feige

Film Review

Reuniting the same team from the 2012 super-smash The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron has all the bells and whistles anticipated –and expected – from this 2 ½ -hour epic ensemble superhero sequel that fills the bill, but just shyly a short step away from being that rare sequel that’s an improvement on the first outing if it didn’t have to go somewhat overboard on the presentation from writer/director Joss Whedon at the helm.

Engaging an assault on a HYDRA fortress in the fictional Eastern European state of Skovia, the post-S.H.E.I.L.D. Avengers – Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Downey, Jr.), Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Johansson), Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans), Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner), Thor (Hemsworth) and Bruce “The Hulk” Banner (Ruffalo) – are out to retrieve the sceptre of Loki that got stolen during the chaos from the last film out of the hands of mad scientist Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretchmann) from unleashing any more damage to the world.

Coming out of a victorious if harrowing aftermath, Stark and Banner examines the sceptre’s gemstone before Thor returns it back to his realm to discover a complex artificial intelligent matter within and Stark gets the great idea to initiate this matter into his global defense program called Ultron to relieve him and his team from peacekeeping duties, with Banner’s reluctant assistance.

Unwittingly, Ultron (voice of James Spader) rapidly becomes sentient with the matter and believes that the only way to save humanity is to destroy it. He also recruits the orphaned brother-and-sister Maximoff Twins, the speedy Petro a.k.a. Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and mind-manipulating Wanda a.k.a. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who were once both von Strucker’s superhuman experiments; as pawns in exploiting their abilities and executing his diabolical plan.

The team gets splintered and disoriented after a failed confrontation against Ultron and his robotic army of thousands and retreats to lick their wounds, needing a little help from their old boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and a few more allies, that includes creating an improved version of what Stark had in mind with The Vision (voice of Paul Bettany); in the ultimate showdown that could lead to the total destruction of Earth or save it.

Age of Ultron, as said earlier, is a film that falls a step behind from being great if Whedon hadn’t gone about speeding up the action sequences so fast that it’s hard to catch up in what’s going on at times for its own good, yet at least the ages-old plot about scientific meddling with the unknown and the moral responsibility on good intentions is an interesting retelling of the Frankenstein story (almost cuts close to The Hulk’s origins, in a way), plus the humour, drama and thrills remain intact in his solid script.

There’s also some serious character development involved with the cast who put on some more humanistic qualities with Downey Jr.’s who’s less cocky than in his previous Iron Man outings as a man in fear of his mortality and responsibility as team leader; Evans as a distrusting Captain America in questioning his beliefs and purpose; Johansson and Ruffalo seem to be becoming an item as Black Widow is able to tame the giant green beast, but yet never getting close enough either and even Hemsworth shows a unexpected insecure side of the Norse thunder god.

Spader is tops in voicing a highly smart and dangerous titular superbaddie touched with a megalomaniacal flair and adolescent snarkiness being Stark’s evil “child” with daddy issues here as it were, just short of being a Bond villain. Taylor-Johnson and Olsen make good additions as the teenaged mutant siblings caught between moral planes of right and wrong, Don Cheadle guest starring as superhero War Machine and Jackson’s back as Fury after the uncertainty that came after Captian America: The Winter Soldier, both tagging along are fun accessories (that includes the customary creator Stan Lee cameo that’s actually good for a change, aside from the one in Big Hero 6).

Ben Davis’ cinematography adds the right amount of darkness and characteristics to an already dark film punctuated by the score of Danny Elfman to give Avengers: Age of Ultron a fairly good pass for popcorn fare and still want to keep fanboys and fangirls believing that the two-part follow-up Infinity War (coming in 2018 and 2019 respectively) will up the ante in an already decent franchise.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron releases in cinemas across North America May 1.

Karenina ballet captivates

St. Petersburg Eifman Ballet: Anna Karenina (Show One Productions/Sony Centre)

Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, 1 Front Street East

Friday, April 24; 8 p.m.

Dance Review

Leo Tolstoy’s realist-fictional classic Anna Karenina has been ripe for several incarnations since its first appearance in 1878 about a complex love triangle and the stifling social mores of pre-revolutionary Russia, with the St. Petersburg Eifman Ballet bringing their 2005 production to the Sony Centre not only as brilliant if brief return to Toronto after a three-year absence, yet provides more of a theatrical experience than just a dance performance.

Under the guidance of its founder/artistic director Boris Eifman, the two-act, 90-minute ballet adaptation throws out most of the secondary characters and focuses on the main ones in regard to Anna (Natalia Povoroznyuk) in a unhappy marriage to her senior civil servant husband Karenin (Dmitry Fisher) and an even more unhappy affair she carries on with Count Vronsky (Sergey Volobuev) whom she wants to leave for, but is burdened by marital duty held in high regard to Russian upper-class society and her sincere attachment to her young son.

Taking the classical elements of Russian ballet forms injected with a little modernism, the company gives this particular version some visual beauty and depth to the story by throwing in some psycho-eroticism during the bouts of passion between Anna and her loves to relative sadness and doleful ending by the principal dancers and the company in ensemble pieces from exquisite ballrooms to secluded bedrooms all from Eifman’s quick and light-footed choreography to the strands of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, the bold sets from Zinovy Margolin, Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting designs and the darks, lights and metallic costuming by Vyacheslav Okunev.

It does tend to drift a bit midway during the second act but it does return with a flourish, in particular from the Act Two opening debauchery of young men drowning their whatever sorrows in spirits blending male machismo and comical elements to the suicidal death scene in incorporating several dancers to represent the train for which the tragic heroine throws herself under.

Eifman Ballet does Tolstoy proud with Anna Karenina with an energetic flair and debonair made good with the ensemble giving it their all in their fluid movements, emotions and characteristics in giving it a unique presentation to an old and cherished romantic-tragedy about love’s sacrifices, possession, confinement and personal freedoms.

Rhythm Rainbow Nation

Dominion (Vuyani Dance Theatre/Canadian Stage)

Bluma Appel Theatre, Front Street East

Saturday, April 25; 8 p.m.

Dance Review

Part 3 of a 3-part series

Wrapping up Canadian Stage’s biennial international Spotlight series on guest nation South Africa where 50 artists in six shows spread over three weeks got a fine farewell with the Vuyani Dance Theatre’s double bill production, Dominion.

Led by its innovative choreographer Luyanda Sidiya, opening number Umnikelo (“offering” in Xhosa) provided a prideful joy of tribal and modern ballet with a company of ten dancers building momentum from the darkness to a amber-bathed landscape of a lively atmosphere for its first 20 minutes, then dived into deep indigoes and blues in the slower midsection consisting of a trio until rebuilding it back to an ensemble. Accompanied by onstage musicians Pascali Mokadi, Mpumi “Mama Drum” Nhlapo and Anele Ndebele of their fervid percussion and guttural vocal works, this number launched it off to a vibrant start to celebrate modern African culture.

The self-titled second work dug deeper on the social and political question of power and control as governmental and military figures on a raised platform dictated to a mass crowd through their movements in a statement on following personality cults – its pivotal moment consisted of the leaders scattering bread crumbs into the crowd and watching them fight over the pieces like hungry, greedy birds is disturbing in itself – until power struggles and individual thought breaks these schools of conformity from both sides, as least when power vacuums get filled quickly.

Oliver Hauser’s set designs and multi-spectrum lighting never clashes against the beige and tan costumes of Luvuyo Msila for Umnikelo for that earthy look, while Veronica Sham reflects a frightenly fascist-inspired getup to her costuming for Dominion’s leaders and peasant clothing of the common masses against Nkululeko Mazibuko’s lighting works to make both productions effective and emotive.

In speaking of a country’s burgeoning democracy trying to grow out of its ugly past and being in the headlines again of late in regards to the xenophobic riots against migrant workers, at least South African theatre and dance can always put a bright sparkle whenever the so-called Rainbow Nation loses its sheen every now and then.

CONTACT re-imagines boundlessness

Left-right: Sara Cynwar’s “Contemporary Floral Arrangement 5 (A Compact Mass);” Mark Rudewel’s “Wonder Valley #119” and Amfo Akonnor Kwadwo “Dipo” series are just some of the thousands of photos dotting around Toronto for this year’s CONTACT Photography Festival this May.

CONTACT Photography Festival 2015 Preview

Probably one of the more popular artist festivals that have survived both change in technology and time in Toronto has been the mainly free CONTACT Photography Festival, now about to enter its eighteenth year of showing the possibilities and artistic value of the 170-year old art form of photography in all of its forms, running the full month of May with 1,500 Canadian and international artists seen in 175 venues across the city.

“Ten years ago the festival’s first thematic focus raised a question that has been contemplated since the creation of the medium: are photographs truthful representations?” as said by Artistic Director Bonnie Rubenstein. “Today this question remains contentious, as photography’s relationship to reality persistently transforms. While evolving technologies have resulted in irrevocable changes in the way images are created and viewed, efforts to stabilize their role and function are increasingly complex and all the more superfluous.

“In recent years, the debate concerning the veracity of the photograph has developed into questioning the medium itself: what is photography today?” she continues. “The fact that this question has so many possible answers reflects an ever-expanding engagement with photography. In essence, it is both a profound means of expression and an everyday obsession that informs how life is explained, understood, experienced, and remembered. As innovative manifestations of photography continue to emerge, the time-honoured practices that ground them acquire momentum and simultaneously evolve. Breaking away from the framing of a specific thematic narrative, (the festival) celebrates photography as a medium without boundaries.”

Among the fifteen primary exhibits will be this year’s winner of the festival’s Photography Award, American-born Canadian landscape photographer Mark Ruwedel whose work depicts the human imprint on Earth for over 30 years in subtle and non-subtle ways as he puts it, “an inquiry into the histories, cultural and natural, of places that reveal the land as both a field of human endeavour and an agent of historical processes,” that gets a fair viewing at the Ryerson Image Centre (33 Gould Street) through to June 28.

Also in the primaries are Yto Barrada, who has two-part exhibit regarding the fragile relationship between her native Morocco and mainland Europe with Beaux Gestes at A Space Gallery and Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art (both at 401 Richmond Street West; to July 11 and 25 respectively), British-based Italian photographer Lorenzo Vitturi’s Dalston Anatomy on his adopted home of East London’s Dalston area and its immigrant mosaic at the CONTACT Festival Gallery (80 Spadina Avenue, to June 27), Canada’s Scott Conarroe on his cross-country treatise Canada By Rail and By Sea (2007-2011) on our transportation heritage at Ryerson Image Centre (to June 28); Edson Chagas of Angola’s Found, Not Taken on abandoned everyday materials seen on the streets of Newport, Wales and London and his hometown of Luanda; Indo-British photographer Annu Palakunnathu Matthew gets a full exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum (100 Queen’s Park, to October 18) with her family portrait project Generations to the insular Netherlander fisherman’s life captured by Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan in the collaborative film Episode of the Sea at Gallery TPW (170 St. Helens Avenue, to May 23; check for screening times).

CONTACT is almost virtually unavoidable with the public installations around town from the subway system of Contacting Toronto: Expanding Cities by Mexico’s Alejandro Cartagena’s photos with Kingston videographer duo Julia Krolik and Owen Fernley videos featured onscreen at Warden Station (Warden Street/St. Clair Avenue West); Sara Cynwar’s ongoing Flat Death series at Lansdowne Avenue (Dundas Street West/College Street) billboards of hybrid kitsch of everyday objects; Franco-Algerian artist Zenib Sedira’s derelict ship graveyard work The Death of a Journey V down by Harbourfront’s Power Plant Gallery’s South Façade (231 Queen’s Quay West, to September 7), plus South Korea’s Jihyun Jung depicts the rapid growth expansionism of his country to modernize further and personal memories in the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art’s Courtyard and Alcove (952 Queen Street West, to August 31), Demolition Site.

And checking around some gallery spaces are selected exhibits like Olga Korper Gallery’s (17 Morrow Avenue) Flesh + Stone by 1980s photog icon Robert Mapplethorpe; TIFF Lightbox’s Canadian Film Gallery (350 King Street West, to June 14) showing The Scene Unseen of preserved film reels of various classics from Citizen Kane to Alien by Reiner Riedler; the transition from girlhood to womanhood in Guianese society found in Amfo Akonnor Kwadwo’s Dipo at The Rivoli (334 Queen Street West); a tour of duty in Afghanistan shot on Rita Leistner’s iPhone for Looking for Marshall McLuhan in Afghanistan at Dylan Ellis Gallery (1840 Danforth Avenue, to May 13); the chromatic explorations of Claire Harvie in All Images Are Unstable at Alliance Française Gallery (24 Spadina Avenue) and music legends can be seen at Bill Woodley’s documented Newport 1965 at the Rex Hotel (194 Queen Street West), The Rolling Stones – A Rock ‘n’ Roll Perspective group exhibit at Paul Hahn & Co. (1058 Yonge Street) of rare, intimate shots of the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band to Women in Rock at Analogue Gallery (673 Queen Street West, to June 14) featuring portraits of Joni Mitchell, Diana Ross, Sinéad O’Conner and Deborah Harry, among others.

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CONTACT 2015 runs May 1-31. Most venues are FREE. For information, call 416-539-9595 or visit scotiabankcontactphoto.com.