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 #58 - WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 14-20, 2015

Raunchy Empire sinfully delicious

Empire (evenco/Spiegelworld)

Spiegeltent, 318 Queen’s Quay West (corner of Rees Street and Queen’s Quay West)

Tuesday, September 8; 8:20 p.m.

AUDIENCE ADVISORY Coarse language, brief nudity, mature subject matter

Theatre Review

The sauciness starts in Spiegelworld’s R-rated Empire when the announcer proclaims after the 700-seat, 360°-degree structured Spiegeltent is open for patrons to enter: “The first ones in gets a free hand job!” from the Australian-born, U.S.-based impresario Ross Mollison, who first brought The Puppetry of the Penis, Tap Dogs and Slava’s Snowstorm to North American audiences back in the 2000s; gives Toronto its first taste of their volatile cocktail of circus, burlesque, vaudeville and comedy – and it’s sinfully delicious.

Plus, it’s really no coincidence they would locate this show right under the world’s second-tallest phallic structure (a.k.a. the CN Tower)…

The carnival of carnal begins with the husband and wife MCs Oscar and Fanny (Matthew Morgan, Heidi Brucker) with magic changing act involving a little “wardrobe malfunction” where they’re unashamed (boy, they sure as hell aren’t) to get down with the crowd after the spectacular aerial spherical contortions of Miss A (Lucia Carbines) and brings on a bevy of rogues’ gallery of performers ranging from the scantily-clad banquine Gorilla Girls trio with their part-acrobatic, part-striptease act that wows to the Graffiti Guy in 3D (Andreis Jacob) pretty impressive Spin-top on driftwood continuously without touching said top along its contours and the sweat-inducing Sanddorn branch balancing acts with the steadiness of concentration, all upon a rather small, intimate stage.

It’s what to expect for the next 90 minutes with a roller-skating act done with wild abandon that looks as dangerous to perform, let alone watch and the hand-to-hand balancing number with Vlad Ivashkin and Aiusha Khadzh Khamed for all its sensuality. With songstress Miss Purple (Tessa Alves) and guitarist Moondog (Aurelien Budynek) providing the musical interludes, Empire is basically of what would be described as Cirque du Soleil gone totally naughty and obscene (and those are compliments) when Morgan and Brucker get off with their salty banter as the comic reliefs in the structure that blends a 1970s-like disco held inside a 1930s Belgian-style Speigeltent out of wood, stained glass and canvas holding its own arcadian charm.

The only problem with Empire is that it tends to drag out its pre-show shenanigans a bit too long past its supposed start time by an additional ten minutes beyond the traditional wait-time. Anticipation is good, but it shouldn’t be overdone either. Definitely not for the younger crowd under 15, Empire is all the devilish theatrical romp that can be crammed underneath one wooden tent you’ll probably get all year, so indulge.

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Empire runs through November 8. For tickets/information, call 1-855-310-2525 or visit Spiegelworld.ca.

Varekai’s near-perfect farewell

Varekai (Cirque du Soleil)

Air Canada Centre, 40 Bay Street

Wednesday, September 2; 7:30 p.m.

Theatre Review

The very first time I ever reviewed and saw a live Cirque du Soleil show was Varekai when it made its Toronto premiere under the Grand Chapiteau in 2002, beginning my long-time fascination and journey with the Montréal-based neo-circus. Fourteen years later and under the arena format later, it manages to hold its own specific sway as it did in the Air Canada Centre on September 2, only a little bit more muted in the approach as it made its final North American stop on its retirement world tour.

Based on the Icarus legend of the young Greek adventurer who flew too close to the sun and fell to earth, the show does an alternative take on the story when the fallen hero Icare lands more or less safely into a magical forest filled with forest creatures and figures who open him up to new possibilities in the fate he has been handed, as lorded over by the yin-and-yang leaders of this world, a grumpy Guide who treats him with suspicion and the light-hearted Skywatcher looking to learn and help him adapt.

Unlike past arena adaptations, Varekai managed to keep some of its big tent atmosphere which had been a problem before. Yet, it was a bit low-keyed and slow to reach its potential in the first act but started to improve within the second act of the show, so Cirque does have a bit of a way to go with in that regard compared to arena-designed shows like 2006’s DELIRIUM or 2011’s Michael Jackson THE IMMORTAL World Tour that were geared for such venues from the start.

Still, a majority of the acts were good like the Gregorian Dance with their leaps, knee spins and spark-emitting sabre rattles; the newly-installed and highly energetic Synchronized Tumbling sequence that replaced the original Icarian Games act; the Slippery Surface bit under a tropical tune; clowns Joanna and Steven with their silliness producing the chuckles, especially in the show highlight of Steven lipsynching to jazz chestnut “Ne Me Quitte Pas” under a wayward spotlight remains a side-splitter to the dramatis of human suffering as performed on the balancing solo on crutches by the Limping Angel character and its concluding Russian Swing finale. The only weak spots was the build-up to the opening with such a overextended Charivari of the secondary characters could have been dialed back just a bit and during the hand-balancing act with Icare and the Betrothed engaged in a courtship ritual felt a little half-hearted despite the artistry involved.

The late Eiko Ishioka’s colourful, playful costuming still stands out among the extended set by Stéphane Roy to give the bamboo forest more depth and feel than the Grand Chapiteau did, and the score by Violaine Corradi has its flavour all under the direction of Dominic Champagne who created the show in the spirit of the nomadic soul.

It may not have the legs it used to have, but Varekai still remains as one of Cirque’s classics as being forward-looking on new frontiers as they prepare for two forthcoming productions coming to Toronto in the near-future: their first venture into cinema via the arena, TORUK – The First Flight, inspired by James Cameron’s Avatar as directed by DELIRIUM’s Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon (click here for preview article) and the Mexican culture-inspired touring big tent show Cirque 2016 (working title) from the creator/director of 2005’s Corteo, Daniele Finzi Pasca.

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TORUK performs in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre January 7-10, 2016, tickets now on sale; Cirque 2016 coming in summer/fall 2016 (tentative) at the Port Lands (51 Commissioners Street). For information, visit cirquedusoleil.com.

Shymalan’s spooky little comeback

The Visit (Universal)

Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie

Writer/Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Producers: Marc Bienstock, Jason Blum, Ashwin Rajan and M. Night Shyamalan

Film Review

Stumbling over the last decade with quite a few duds and a couple of lost opportunities after a stellar opening head start to a most promising career, M. Night Shyamalan finally gets his mojo back in the comedic horror tale The Visit, getting back to his roots as a master storyteller with a low-budget thriller with high quality spooks while at the same time taking a different approach to his filmmaking technique.

Done as a found-footage/documentary style, teen siblings Becca (DeJonge) and Tyler (Oxenbould) Jamieson take a week-long trip to Masonville, Pennsylvania away from their single mom Anna (Kathryn Hahn) to her parents Marianna “Nana” (Dunagan) and Francis “Pop Pop” (McRobbie) Mason, who she’s been estranged from for the last fifteen years when she left home at 19 for unknown reasons; doing a little doc along the way in meeting their grandparents for the first time.

Seeing this as a break for Anna and the kids since their father walked out on their family a couple of years back with a few issues to sort out amongst themselves, Becca and Tyler initially have a great time with the old folks on their farmhouse as Anna herself goes on a sea cruise vacation with her new beau. But come nightfall, things get really bizarre when they hear those things that go “bump” in the night and discover that the “bump” happens to be Nana wandering the halls with wild abandon.

A seemingly complacent Pop Pop explains this phenomenon as “sundowning,” (it actually does exist among dementia patients) he advises the two to stay in their room at 9:30 p.m. until morning. As the week progresses, their behaviour gets more erratic by the day and the kids do some investigating to figure out what is going on with them before something goes horribly wrong.

Taking some cues from The Blair Witch Project minus the shaky-cam stuff, Shyamalan crafts an old-fashioned haunted house horror story with a realistic pacing without forcing it out into the open to leave viewers with the kind of guessing games involved and natural humour and interaction between the characters. While the scary stuff comes up organically in a slow, tense build, it works in The Visit ’s favour in a very well done script he hasn’t done since Unbreakable.

Getting a cast free of any A-list actors also helps with DeJonge and Oxenbould coming off well as two siblings with genuine camaraderie and in looking out for each other (a rarity in commercial cinema) as they figure out adolescent angst and analysing the fallout of their broken home; House of Cards’ Dunagan plays it really spooky with her falling between the archetypical doting grandmother to a lady literally off her rocker and character actor McRobbie who seems the complacent type, but has his own antics and dark secrets mulling about that makes this an even more edgy film.

The Visitdefinitely marks this as Shymalan’s comeback project with redemptive measures in place with his audience that flocked to him in the first place and will welcome him back eagerly with the hope he can keep up that momentum. One other tidbit: as one sees throughout the film, if the acting career doesn’t work out for Oxenbould (previously seen in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), he’s got a very good fallback in being a hip-hop artist.

Nothing short-sighted over Short Cuts

Greek Cyprus entry Semele joins the shorts lineup for TIFF 2015.

2015 Toronto International Film Festival Reviews

Part 1 of 2-part series

Short Cuts Programme 3

Saturday, September 12; 7 p.m.

As introduced last year into TIFF with short films from around the world in its own separate category, the organisers decided to mix it all up in the programmes along with the Canadian content for this year to give it a more fair and democratic showing of potential for all viewers to get a chance to see.

Checking the CanCon fare in Programme 3, A New Year from Montréaler director Marie-Ève Juste films her (then-) pregnant sister actor/musician Florence and her friends during a intimate New Year’s Eve gathering while weighing down on her own insecurities all shot in black and white has a aesthetic styling in the composition and pace, but rather wafer-thin on the plot when it could have been more to it than that.

Boxing by directors Grayson Moore and Aidan Shipley creates a density about the goings-on in a women’s boxing facility where Sheila, an older attendee comes head-to-head with a younger patron about an unexplained previous accident regarding personal loss, which gradually boils to the surface and overflows towards its inevitable conclusion, carried itself of pent-up tension.

Lightly funny documentary Bacon & God’s Wrath has Sol Friedman follow family friend Raizie who, at age 90, now questions her Jewish faith after a lifetime of following the strict rules and upbringing, plus fulfilling traditional women’s roles in raising a family. Her awakening, told in animated and live-action segments; occurs with her introduction to the internet that opens up a whole new world of ideas for her to reconsider – including atheism and eating bacon for the very first time – as the Torontonian octogenarian poses this interesting (no pun intended) food for thought: “It’s courageous to embrace the truth, even if it means abandoning what you know.”

The tragicomic Western The Ballad of Immortal Joe.

The Ballad of Immortal Joe is full of comedic woe from Toronto animator Hector Herrera and brilliantly narrated by Kenneth Walsh with a score by The Sadies about the tragic Western tale of a avenging gunslinger, who is forever doomed to wander the earth in meting out frontier justice for the defenceless due to a promise made for a lost love, through its quirky rhythmic rhyme earns its winning charm about taking one’s perspective about life.

The first-ever film from (Greek) Cyprus to appear at TIFF, Semele follows a father-daughter relationship of the titular lonely girl who spends an impromptu day at her father’s woodworking jobsite much to his reluctance. But underneath the gruffness by her dad come fragile, terse if bonding moments between the two in Myrsini Aristidou’s simplistic and narrative direction. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the Polish-Australian drama Rain by Malina Maria Mackiewicz of a woman visiting her death-row lover, perhaps for the last time; didn’t have much substance in the storyline that went all too quickly for a chance to absorb it all.

A rare look at contemporary life in Indonesia, Following Diana looks at the disintegration of a Muslim family when the husband has an affair and decides to take on a second wife as decreed by entitlement by his faith, while Diana chooses not to follow the tradition of accepting this norm by seeking a divorce, raising her young son alone and going out into the working world, finding herself a newfound independence and empowerment. Director Kamila Andini tackles a very brave topic to showcase about her society and in challenging the roles of women in general, despite the overuse of quiet nuances that unnecessary drag it out a bit.

Short Cuts Programme 6

Sunday, September 13; 9:45 p.m.

Patrice Laliberté’s family dramaOverpass.

Three Québec films centred mostly in this programme starting with the first two on disaffected youth, Halima Elkhatabi’s Nina and Patrice Laliberté’s Overpass. The former dealt with a single teenage mother on her own grappling with the responsibilities in caring for her newborn daughter while barely having outgrown her own adolescence herself now permanently arrested; as the latter shows the recklessness of a teenaged suburbanite boy behaving with textbook rebellion in a graffiti tagging episode while learning to grieve over a personal loss that explains his actions.

Laliberté’s audacious direction with the story effectively captures all that angst immensely from the film’s antihero and some terse scenes when he’s precariously dangling from an expressway overpass and ducking the police to when he gives his mother indifference over his nocturnal activities, whereas Elkhatabi does provide some moments in Nina, her flow of the plot feels very standardized and ordinary.

The Sleepwalker marries the poetry of Federico García Lorca and a animated surrealistic romantic fantasia.

Animated fares The Sleepwalker, also from Québec by Theodore Ushev; is a delightfully eccentric little piece of neocubist and surrealistic figures dancing and prancing all over on a black backdrop to a Balkan Roma beat most worthy in the style of Norman McLaren and Ireland’s Violet fashions itself as a cautionary Victorian gothic tale of a preteen girl’s battle with low self-esteem and self-worth that eventually provides a bitter lesson of learning to be oneself in a stunning traditional animation format from Maurice Joyce, is priceless viewing.

A girl's crippling self-esteem takes a topsy-turvy turn for the Irish Victorian Gothic taleViolet.

Dream the Other by Mexican filmmaker Abril Schumucler Iñiguez tries to show the balance of a single middle-aged office cubicle drone named Diego trapped in between dreams of desired domestication and the realities of his loneliness waging a war with his subconscious for what is real and fantasy felt uneven toward the end; Hungarian teen melodrama End of Puberty drenches itself in sepia tones of fraternal twin sisters caught in a web of jealousy over a boy at a day at the lake and facing the society’s politics on body image had that nostalgic look and feel, yet seemed like a leftover Cold War-era Eastern European cinema throwaway without much to stand on from Fanni Szilágyi.

The closing Israeli lesbian love story One Last Night showed a underground subculture seen through two Tel Aviv lovers Noa and Orr who are about to become separated temporarily as the butch Orr relocates to Berlin, with dainty Noa to later follow. Their dream faces derailment when they’re arrested for disorderly behaviour at a nightclub on the eve of Orr’s departure for defending of a fellow LGBT activist and what lengths one will go through for love that director Kerem Blumberg shows with such courageous filmmaking and a bold-faced openness of Israeli society towards its gay community in the face of its contradictory motives and behaviour towards other groups.

TIFF Street Festival 2015

Pictorial Showcase

The unfortunately wet and overcast opening weekend that started TIFF’s 40th birthday party with the return of Street Festival (September 10-13) along King Street between University Avenue and Peter Street couldn’t dampen some of the brave taking the chilly weather with stride as shown in the following pictorial showcase, all shot on the night of Friday, September 11.

A glowing welcome, in spite of the rain, to TIFF's second Festival Street at University Avenue and King Street West.

Somebody's celebrating four decades of cinema...

One of forty balloons along the street fest prominade with icons from the films that made the People's Choice Award. Hint: It went on to win a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for this 1991 Terry Gilliam comedy/drama afterwards.

Inside the portable micro-cinema Situated Cinema Project; In-Camera's Pilgrimage by Solomon Nagler and Alexandre Larose.

Blink and you'll miss it up on the corner of King and John Streets, Richard Kerr's video installation demi-monde.

A before shot of a family-friendly activity set for Saturday, September 12 of a kid's colouring collage project (how it turned out, I'll never know)...

Braving the rain at NewCanadianMusic.ca Stage down on John Street for Toronto prog-gospel band Bruce Peninsula & The Sounds of Sleeping Giant.

Lining up for a .GIF convert-photobooth to promote the upcoming TIFF Lightbox exhibit Andy Warhol: Stars of the Silver Screen.

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NEXT: Part 2 – Black Mass, Beasts of No Nation, the People’s Choice Award Winner and more. TIFF 2015 continues through to Sunday (September 20). For tickets/information, call 416-599-8433 or visit tiff.net.