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 #19 - WEEK OF OCTOBER 20-26, 2014

Noir thriller packs a virtual wallop

Helen Lawrence (Canadian Stage/Arts Club Theatre Company/Banff Centre)

Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front Street East

Thursday, October 16; 8 p.m.

THEATRE ADVISORY Coarse language

Theatre Review

A couple of years ago Canadian Stage performed a cinema/theatrical hybrid Tear the Curtain! with a few mixed results wrapped up in a artsy film noir mystery. Helen Lawrence plays along in the same vein, only a lot more straight-forward, shorter and evenly paced in the approach that stays interesting throughout.

Walking into the fleabag Old Hotel in 1948 Vancouver all the way from Los Angeles, Elizabeth Mansfield a.k.a. Helen Lawrence (Lisa Ryder) makes her way into the seedy manager Harry Mitchell’s (Hrothgar Matthews) office on the lookout for a conman Percy Walker (Nicolas Lea) whom she has an old score to settle with.

Little does she realise that Percy’s holed up in the very same hotel, trying to cut a deal with local hustler Buddy Black (Allan Louis) down in the slummy Hogan Alley in obtaining a liquor license in the dry seaside metropolis, while juggling to reconcile with his estranged brother Henry (Sterling Jarvis) back from the war embittered about his experience and crushed dreams; along with his waitress girlfriend Mary Jackson (Crystal Balint) still pining for her missing-in-action husband to come home, plus grease the palms of two corrupt cops Inspector Perkins (Greg Ellward) and Chief Muldoon (Ryan Hollyman).

Caught up in this maelstrom of dirty secrets, double dealings and blackmail are a hotel busybody clerk (Haley McGee), a German illegal hotel maid (Ava Jane Markus) and her battle-haunted loser husband (Adam Kenneth Wilson) and a Asian hooker (Emily Piggford) on Buddy’s payroll, looking to make sense of their lives in the postwar world, which all will come together to meet up with their fates laid out, good and bad.

Delayed for a year in coming to Toronto from a highly-acclaimed world tour, Helen Lawrence basks in a steely manner as conceived by renown Vancouver visual artist Stan Douglas and screenwriter Chris Haddock (Da Vinci’s Request; Boardwalk Empire) harkens all those Hollywood classics of tough-talking men and wise-cracking ladies all on the big score(s) through a snappy and crackling dialogue and Douglas’ layered directional pacing the cast portrays on an innovative blue-screen enclosed stage alongside computer-generated 3D sets – also designed by Douglas – of a long-gone Vancouver for all its black-and-white grit, Nancy Byrant’s costuming, Robert Sondergaard’s expertly-timed lighting cues and noted Canadian jazz guitarist John Gzowski’s swing-era score setting the situations.

The 90-minute play pays a nice salute to the hard-boiled thrillers punctuated with drama and comedy with finesse and ingenuity you probably won’t find onstage involving clear-cut banter and intrigue lurking on each corner with an ending that doesn’t disappoint. Don’t miss this period piece, period.

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Helen Lawrence runs through November 2. For tickets/information, call 416-368-3110 or canadianstage.com.

Formulaic family fallout

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (Walt Disney)

Cast: Jennifer Garner, Steve Carell, Ed Oxenbould, Dylan Minnette

Director: Miguel Arteta

Producers: Lisa Henson, Shawn Levy and Daniel S. Levine

Screenplay/Screen Story: Rob Leiber; based on the Judith Viorst children’s book

Film Review

If you’ve ever read the classic kid-lit book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, expect to get a completely different version of the screen adaptation of the typical “one of those days” family fares, although there’s only so much you can stretch out of a short book into a 81-minute feature to entertain kids, let alone adults.

Alexander Cooper (Oxenbould) is the semi-middle child among four siblings ranging from big brother Anthony (Minnette), big sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) and toddler brother Trevor (Elise and Zoey Vargas), who’s feeling lower than low lately with his upcoming 12th birthday party nobody wants to come to due to popular rival Elliot’s (Reese Hartwig) own birthday shindig on the same date; can’t make inroads with his crush Becky (Sidney Fullner) and doesn’t get to do a school report on his favourite country Australia, all the while book publicist mom Kelly (Garner) is seemingly heading for a promotion and unemployed engineer stay-home dad Ben (Carell) hopes to land a prospect with a videogame outfit.

With a string of bad luck hanging over him, Alexander makes a pre-birthday wish that everyone in his family would endure to what he’s going through for a day, and sure enough, one meltdown over another overcomes each member of the household while everything else goes his way, much to his unexpected dismay.

As said before, there’s a lot of changes made in Alexander from the original Judith Viorst book from adding a sister to the mix to bumping up the lead’s age from eight to a preteen that will feel unfamiliar (even though the Australian references are fully kept), the humour borders from lame slapstick to juvenile – words like “boobies” and “penis” are even used, definitely a first in a Disney family film (how times have changed!) – despite the theme of family trying to keep it together through personal crises, as screenwriter Rob Leiber tries to cram all at once has good intentions out of a schmaltzy script riddled with plot holes like, how can a unemployed father throw a huge Australian-themed birthday party that looks like a fortune got plunked down for it?

It’s a given the cast does their best out of this, in particular to Oxenbould holding his end as the main protagonist thrown with a sympathetic angle to see the everyone has a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day now and then; Carell trying hard to be the eternal optimist feels a bit hokey at times; while Garner and Dorsey probably do the funnier moments with the former unsuccessfully tries to halt a disastrous book reading by legendary Dick Van Dyke (what’s he doing in this film?) and the latter battling a sore throat by overdosing on cold medicine in time for her school play production of Peter Pan.

Director Miguel Arteta’s formulaic pacing has little to add and doesn’t improve Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’s fortunes much as it would for the leading character and his family’s day from hell. Might keep the younger set amused, but for older kids and adults it just feels like a sophomoric effort.

Morality gothic tale takes wing

Dracula Untold (Universal)

Cast: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Art Parkinson

Director: Gary Shore

Producer: Michael de Luca

Screenplay: Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless; based on characters created from the Bram Stroker novel

Film Review

Being so close to Halloween, it seems as good as time as any to release a vampire flick like Dracula Untold for the masses. But this is no generic bloodsucker story unlike the overblown Twilight series – and pardon the pun – that drained the life out of the mythos to be anything worth of credibility to be placed in the same breath as past incarnations have done.

In mid-1450s Transylvania, the state enjoys a relative peace from the Ottoman Empire under the rule of its beneficent ruler Prince Vlad III (Evans) until traces of Turkish troops are seen around the countryside brings the prospect of war onto their soil again that Vlad very much wants to prevent.

Unsatisfied with the heavy tribute in silver coins to the Turks, their commanding General Mehmed II (Cooper) further demands one thousand boys to join the Sultan’s army, including Vlad’s own son Ingeras (Parkinson), as they wage a warpath across Europe. With no formidable army to speak of and a promise to his beloved wife Mirena (Gadon) to save their son from the same fate he experienced as a former child soldier of the Ottomans, Vlad heads toward the foreboding Broken Tooth Mountain and makes a deal to obtain supernatural powers from the cave-dwelling Master Vampire (Charles Dance) to vanquish his enemies.

Taking advantage of his newfound abilities and trying not to succumb to the blood thirst for at least three days or become a vampire for eternity, Vlad does his best to hide it from his charges, citizens and family, plus overconfident he’ll be able to resist; circumstances will determine the destiny of the man who’ll take up the moniker of Dracula through sacrifice and revenge.

For this latest screen offering, Dracula Untold takes a more humanistic stance to the origins storyline and avoids any sense of sentimentality of how far a person will go to preserve what they hold dear to, as scribed by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless’ script from the Bram Stroker chestnut as guided by Gary Shore, richly undertoned through John Schwartzman’s cinematography and pretty good special effects in tow.

Evans makes a convincing Dracula as an average doting family man moulded by fate to take a different path conflicted by choice, where he pits himself against the cold candour of Cooper’s devilish beast served finely. Toronto’s own Gadon plays the understanding wife maybe too close to the mark to be faultless, yet nonetheless holds a key part of the story and downfall, while Paul Kaye hold the moral centre as a monasterial monk as Vlad’s unexpected confidant and ally.

Rippling battle scenes looking like they were lifted from the Underworld franchise and vampire references aplenty for Dracula Untold as a passable fare minus the horror to hilt like most films would go for, but to serve as a morality gothic tale to give it some bite (okay, last vampire pun here).

Cohen as his heady best

Leonard Cohen

Popular Problems (Columbia/Sony)

Producer: Patrick Leonard

Pop/Folk

Album Reviews

Having just turned 80, the grandmaster of dark poetry pop-folk Leonard Cohen presents Popular Problems, perhaps his best album in ages and his gravelly cool vocals haven’t lost their touch as much as his lyrics have, still maintain the consistency of the themes he’s always explored on the shadowy side of the street that he makes sound so curiously attractive.

Bluesy folk (“Slow”, “A Street”), some gospel (“Samson in New Orleans”, “Born in Chains”) and a little country undercurrent (“Did I Ever Love You”) floats in and out over those comprehensive lines so familiar and so Cohenesque, be it the darkest “Almost Like the Blues”: “I have die a little, between each murderous thought/And when I’m finished thinking, I have to die a lot” or on the semi-optimistic (believe it or not) “You Got Me Singing”: “You got me singing even though the world is gone/ You get me thinking that I’d like to carry on/You got me singing even tho’ it all looks grim/ You got me singing in the Hallelujah hymn,” of a world-weary observer still clinging onto hope.

Aided with backup singers Charlean Carmon and Dana Glover, and production values from producer Patrick Leonard keeping it quite simple as it is, particularly on best track “Nevermind” about the internal confessions of a war criminal ringing true to form, putting Cohen far ahead of any of his contemporaries.

U2’s most welcomed Innocence

U2

Songs of Innocence – Deluxe Edition (Island/Interscope/Universal)

Producers: Danger Mouse with Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder, Declan Gaffrey and Flood

Rock

After a five-and-a-half year hiatus, Irish supergroup U2 returns with the long, long-awaited Songs of Innocence mined out of their formative years of late 1970s Dublin and the heroes of the day they admired and would inspire the future rock god quartet that aren’t as innocent or easy regardless of what the album title states, including Bono and The Edge’s lyrics filled with teenaged angst; is their fullest sounding since All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

Tributes to punk greats The Ramones and The Clash, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” and “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” respectfully, come out hard rocking and knocking to the core to a surprising Beach Boys ode over “California (There is no End to Love),” gives it a more of a back-to-basics project Bono had been promising for ages (although they pretty much succeeded that with All That You Can’t…), thanks in part to main producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton holding it together by grounding the periods of yesterday and today to remain crisp in the songs’ sounds.

The two-disc Deluxe Edition was well worth the wait, apart from the quasi-fiasco of the band’s experimental iTunes download into all accounts that weren’t universally warranted (but reinvigorated interest in their back catalogue and position, so either way it worked); yet still holds a lot of worthy material whether they’re busy crucifying pedophile priests’ corruptive behaviours (“Sleep Like a Baby Tonight”), reminiscing over those punk rock parties (“Lucifer’s Hands”) or swimming in ‘80s New Wave over unrequited love and wish fulfillment (“The Crystal Ballroom”). While the longest track “Acoustic Sessions” crunches together snippets from Innocence’s songlist gorgeously enough for the most part of its 22-minute stretch, does adding horns and strings sections to some actually make it “acoustic” at all?

Thankfully, Songs of Innocence makes the grade of its catchy stadium anthems, even with earlier released hit single “Invisible” appearing as a hidden track here – and grateful for the absence of blandish ballad “Ordinary Love” – fans can breathe a welcome relief after the last two efforts No Line On the Horizon and How to Dismantle a Atomic Bomb slightly limped into U2’s musical tapestry.