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.

EDITION #103 - WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 12-18, 2016

Katwe checkmates, Trane and Baldwin legacies resurrected

Toronto International Film Festival 2016 Reviews

Part 1 of a 2-part series

Queen of Katwe

Sunday, September 11

Disney picked an unusual subject for one of their usual inspirational underdog film far, far removed from the sports-themed stuff they mainly produce: chess. Ordinarily, films involving chess like Pawn Sacrifice, Searching for Bobby Fischer and others aren’t really much to watch (with the notable exceptions of The Seventh Seal and The Thomas Crown Affair) but they’ve managed to get something out of Queen of Katwe, based on the real-life Ugandan Chess Grandmaster Phiona Mutesi, by turning it into a Rocky of chess without getting too patronizing about it.

Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) was just another girl etching a living in the slums of Katwe skirting the Ugandan capital Kampala in 2007 with her single mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), rebellious teen sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) and two younger brothers, etching out a living selling vegetables on the streets without much thought to the future, until she crossed paths with a ministry outreach councillor Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a bright, young engineering grad with a family to support; who teaches the children in the area the board game of chess as to build real skills and self-esteem.

Discovering that Phiona has an uncanny sense of figuring out strategies and winning manoeuvres, Katende tries to convince many doubters from the head of a prestigious Kampala private school (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) and Harriet herself that the girl’s talent could be the way out of poverty’s grip and bring prestige to the country in national and international chess tournaments despite her not having much of a basic education, that will take her far beyond the borders of her nation and herself.

You get the usual chess/life metaphors and triumphs and defeats throughout that director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) takes the film’s heroine through, but at least it’s a thoughtful process done in screenwriter William Wheeler’s agreeable adaptation of Tim Crothers’ ESPN news article-turned-bestselling book with light humour and an unrushed pace. Nair never waters down the grinding slum environs with Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography that shows the strongly-held stereotypes and social classes imposed on these impoverished kids – and then shattering them.

The young talented cast, especially newcomer Nalwanga handles her debut role like a pro in showing all sides of overcoming her obstacles while embodying the preteen whims and growing pains; Nyong’o plays the tough mom struggling to make ends meet is convincingly good while Oyelowo gets some kudos as that’s constantly in Phiona’s corner as the earthy and humble teacher-mentor who’s had his own education through the school of hard knocks is a real gem here and should get some attention during awards season.

Queen of Katwe stretches at its two-hour length for its subject matter, yet at least it’s entertaining and provides life lessons for audiences to come away with and the Afro-pop soundtrack is a pleasure to listen to, but the overdone Alicia Keys-warbled end credits song “Back to Life,” not so much.

***

Queen of Katwe opens in cinemas across North America on September 30.

Inner Workings

To be released along with their forthcoming animated feature Moana (November 23), the Disney short Inner Workings got its premiere screening in TIFF’s Short Cuts programme from creator/director Leo Matsuda, who also worked on Big Hero 6 and this year’s Zootopia ; about the human heart versus mind conflict about an average office drone, Paul, between the constants battles of his living-for-the-moment heart, while his cautionary brain micromanages every aspect and second-guessing consequences that may arise.

Matsuda does a charmingly sweet and humorous parable about exploring and enjoying this short thing called life’s joys and possibilities through traditional and computer animation without dialogue where you feel for the body organs that war about moderation and excessiveness as a thoughtful thing to learn in our otherwise hectic lives and appreciate the time that we have.

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary

Friday, September 9; 12:30 p.m.

A lot has been written and analysed about jazz master John Coltrane of his music and the man, but director John Scheinfeld (The U.S. vs. John Lennon) had the wherewithal to do a proper and spellbinding documentary on him,Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, that starts out with a rather flashy opening, but gradually turns out to be a real gem, going from his brief stint with the Miles Davis Quartet in 1957 to his untimely liver cancer death at 40 in 1966.

With the usual parade of celebrity talking heads from other jazz greats like Jimmy Heath, Sonny Rollins and Wynton Marsalis, big-time fans Carlos Santana and Bill Clinton and family members and Denzel Washington voicing Coltrane, Scheinfeld goes the extra mile by bringing in 400 never-before seen photos of the sax man behind “Naima” and “A Love Supreme” out of the 900 used in the two-hour run and personal home movies and as bonuses: his first-ever recording during a stint in the navy in 1946 and a silent colour Super 8 mm footage of him in a studio recording session, which is ultra-rare.

The film peels deeply into his personal struggles with drugs and art, the intellect behind his compositions, be it about personal spiritualism to the Civil Rights politic of the time to one of the film’s endearing moments of a hardcore Coltrane memorabilia collector from Osaka, Japan named Fuji is a real treat watching. This is the most comprehensive and deeply moving bio-doc mingling concert footage, stills, animation and artwork that you’ll likely see this year – and Trane’s music accompanying it helps a lot, too.

I Am Not Your Negro

Saturday, September 10; 9 p.m.

In the summer of 1979, James Baldwin had begun work on a manuscript entitled Remember This House about his friendships with three of the Civil Rights movement’s biggest leaders, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, their campaigns for equality that would cost them their lives and the state of racism in America. Unfortunately by the time his life ended nine years later, the author had only written about thirty pages and it became his unfinished final work. Until now.

Resurrected through a documentary film format by Haitian director Raoul Peck (Murder in Pacot) that took him four years to shoot after Baldwin’s estate gave him the unfinished book ten years prior as I Am Not Your Negro, it’s a fascinating piece done the in firebrand tone and manner that was the iconoclastic literary icon that he would have been most pleased with – even if the status of the African-American hasn’t changed entirely much since.

As narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the director eschews the talking-head formula that would be the basis of most docs and instead goes for the visual through archival interviews mixed with past and current footage of racial violence from Little Rock to Ferguson, plus a few pop culture moments of how Americans like to see themselves courtesy of Hollywood mythology and government films to the awful ugly realities which flare up on occasion.

In it, Baldwin discusses his relationships with the three men, their lives and their viewpoints on how to achieve equality in the hostile landscape of the 1960s, including his own; while contemplating on his feelings about his estranged birthplace he fled from for a life in France until his death in 1987 on the African-American experience and how it’s not eerily all that far removed in the present context from the Jim Crow laws he witnessed in the segregated American South, the near-genocidal war on Native Americans and overt criticism of its empty materialistic society.

Peck creates a very poetic and structured film that never flinches from the subject for a second, thanks to Jackson who nails Baldwin’s character and tone every time as his words remain fresh as ever and totally poignant along with his long-dead friends who never made it out of the ‘60s, especially when he finally reveals what really happened in the so-called 1963 summit he had with Robert Kennedy and Raisin in The Sun playwright pal Lorraine Hansberry.

Other than it going through the lingering psychological scars of America’s slavery past and contemporary urban violence, it’s fun to watch Baldwin tear down his naïve liberal critics with his hard but honest worldview comebacks in those vintage TV interviews that will continue to resonate long after the post-Obama era that will soon come upon America before long which the film addresses. But as the author sums it up very dryly in I Am Not Your Negro: “The story of America is not the story of America. And it is not a pretty story.”

Wavelengths: Ana Mendieta: Siluetas

Gallery Review

Stills from the video Siluetas Sangrienta among the six digitally-transfered Super 8-mm shorts making up the TIFF Wavelengths focus on the late Cuban-born multimedia artist Ana Mendieta exhibit at CONTACT Gallery, Siluetas

Part of the TIFF Wavelengths programme, the art of Cuban-American artisan Ana Mendieta comes alive in the gallery show Siluetas at the CONTACT Gallery (80 Spadina Avenue, Suite 205) brings about her nearly-forgotten films and photographs now restored and resurfacing her impact on the art world of six shorts and two related photographic series show how incredibly ahead of her time she was.

An art performance pioneer atop of her multidisciplinary résumé whose mysterious falling death from a New York apartment window in 1985 at age 36 still rings of controversy, Mendieta held no barriers through her feminist and land art works that she called “siluetas” (silhouettes) of using her body into and with the surrounding landscape throughout the exhibit, the viewer can see a lot is going on here.

The nine-pictured “Untitled: Silueta Series” of her body imprint in the sandy shoreline of Salina Cruz, Mexico and the ebb and flow of the tide into the ground cavity before dissolving into nothingness in representing the female menses cycle to the six-series “Volcán” shot at Old Man’s Creek in Iowa of a volcanic sculpture done in several moments of eruption with gunpowder to its smouldering finish, has its reclamation of the female body, reproductive art and the duality of fire’s giving and destructive nature is a deep one to think out.

Six silent Super-8mm transferred to digital video shorts – out of the 100 she made in her lifetime – all running under less than three minutes, focuses on the forces of nature with 1975’s Energy Charge of a figure (Mendieta?) walking into a wintry forest before an animated fiery imprint burns; the 1979 film version of “Volcán” continue the same photo series’ theme, along with 1981’s black/white Birth (Gunpowder Works) and 1975’s Alma, Silueut en Fuego of a burning crucifix-like shroud figure. Siluetas Sangrienta from 1975 and 1974’s Creek take on a different momentum with nude shots of the artist where the former has her in a shallow body cavity then filled with a red-pigmented liquid and the latter sees her swimming against a water stream in the San Felipe Creek in Oaxaca, Mexico.

What makes Mendieta’s works special are their introspective positions of the women’s liberation art movement with the likes of her follow contemporaries Judy Chicago, Mary Beth Edelson and Suzanne Lacy would follow in the late 1960s and early ‘70s and petered out until its resurgence in the 1980s that have outstood time and importance, dealing with birth, life, death and body politic issues from the male hierarchy are a testament to that post-feminist era.

And don’t pass by, just hidden around the bend inside the venue; the 8-minute mini-documentary Ana Mendieta, Nature Inside made by her niece Raquel Cecilia Mendieta, taking audio from her 1981 lecture at Western New York’s Alfred University and the various videos, photos and artistry are almost reminiscent of another Latina artist, Frida Kahlo, who also explored the very themes she worked with.

***

Ana Mendieta: Siluetas continues through October 29; 12-5 p.m. daily. Admission is FREE. For information, call 416-539-9595 or scotiabankcontactphoto.com.

Festival Street 2016

King Street West to University Avenue, September 8-11

Pictorial Showcase

The closest most people will get to a red carpet at a TIFF event in their lifetimes, inside TIFF Lightbox and the Hudson’s Bay Company-sponsored Red Carpet.

Games people play, including a Jenga stacking section…

…and the return of the chessboard near Roy Thomson Hall, although much smaller than its 2014 version was.

Lineups were a plenty during the weekend-long Festival Street with the food trucks parked along King Street West and other things people will stand in line anything for on the outdoor venue, including chocolates, VR, bathroom tissue…

…even in front the lighted TIFF sign near the Holiday Inn Hotel.

***

NEXT: Part 2 – Wùlu, Maliglutit (Searchers), Rudzienko and more. TIFF 2016 continues through to this Sunday (September 18). For tickets/information, call 1-888-599-8433 or visit tiff.net/festival.

Period rom-drama shimmers

The Light Between Oceans (DreamWorks/Touchstone)

Cast: Bryce Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Florence Clery

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Producer: David Heyman

Screenplay: Derek Cianfrance; based on the M.L. Stedman novel

Film Review

Most romantic-dramas of late usually drown themselves in the schmaltz commonly attached to its formulaic base. The Light Between Oceans, based on the international bestseller debut of M.L. Stedman; gets a big-screen rendering from its director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) by hitting the right emotional pulls when they come and steadies the flow evenly throughout the film to keep it honest.

Returning home to Australia from the trenches of World War I, Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) takes up a position as a lighthouse keeper in the far west coast of the country to the desolate Janus Lighthouse for a temporary six-month contract. Deadened by the horrific experience of war, he welcomes the isolationism and is seemingly comfortable in his solitude, if it wasn’t for meeting Isabel Graysmark (Vikander), the regional superintendent’s daughter, en route to the job that slowly brings him out of his shell and a relationship blossoms.

When the job extends to a three-year position, Tom and Isabel wed and begin their lives together out at Janus Lighthouse. Their attempts to start a family end in failure and drive her to despair, until one day a dingy mysteriously washes ashore with a dead man and a crying infant girl onboard. Rescuing the child, Isabel out of desperation to be a mother tries to convince duty-bound Tom not to report this incident and to raise the girl as their own, which he reluctantly goes along with.

A couple of years pass and fate intervenes when Tom runs into the grieving widow (Emily Barclay) of the dead man and mother of their daughter Lucy, that they now named Grace (Florence Clery); by a chance meeting on the mainland and his conscience kicks in again as he must now make the tough choice: reunite the rightful mother with her child and redeem himself as a respectable man or risk the love and marriage of his beloved wife and her desire for motherhood?

Cianfrance crafts a very heartfelt and meaningful adaptation in every way from Adam Arkapaw’s effective cinematography, Alexandre Desplat’s swirling score and the lush art direction of Sophie Nash from the windswept vistas of the rocky outcrops of the lighthouse where the quiet beauty effectively sweeps over it, as one can feel it. And the directive ease of pace the director/writer pulls works in Oceans’ favour in the script he gently handles, avoiding unnecessary drag that usually hinders films like this.

Fassbender puts on a good performance as the conflicted war vet torn between love and honour, much as does Vikander with her own selfish, if slightly understandable wants and what is right quite convincingly, including their own subtle chemistry which clicks together. Clery is innocently sweet in her performance without being obnoxious; Barclay holds a certain sway as biological mother Gwen Potts and Bryan Brown gets a nice plum if smallish role as her ranching magnate father, but Rachel Weisz’s bit role as Gwen’s sister-in-law seems very underwhelming here and adds very little to the story.

The Light Between Oceans says a lot about love and sacrifice for the characters not caught up in some overdone plot. Predictable the outcome may be for some; at least it manages to be substantial in this beautifully rendered version for the filmmakers to be proud of.

Il Ghetto’s gravitas, Sholom struggles

Shadowland Theatre returned for Ashkenaz Festival in their creation of the festival’s September 5th Ashkenaz Parade at Harbourfront Centre with their theme of commemorating the 100th death anniversary of noted Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem.

Ashkenaz 2016 Reviews

Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fun a Seylsman) (Joseph Papp Yiddish Theatre/Ashkenaz)

Studio Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge Street

Wednesday, August 31; 8 p.m.

English and Yiddish with English surtitles

Theatre Review

The fabled American Dream. It isn’t for everyone since few can achieve it and it exhausts and consumes those who fervently pursue it as Arthur Miller’s masterpiece Death of a Salesman as an deconstruct of the United States recovering in the postwar period, as done by the New York-based Joseph Papp Yiddish Theatre and given a Yiddish makeover – and subtitled Toyt Fun a Seylsman – of their acclaimed 2015 Off-Broadway production has the flavour of immigration not lost from its reaching performances.

Set in 1950s Brooklyn, it follows aging travelling salesman Willy Loman (Avi Hoffman) trying to project his hopes and dreams onto his adult sons Biff (Daniel Kahn) and Happy (Mikey Samra) for the success he never could achieve while all around him he envies those who have, from his next door neighbour Charley (Sam Stein) and his attorney son Stanley (Michael Gordin Shore) and his younger boss (Ben Rosenblatt) to his rich, but long-dead brother Ben (Spencer Chandler) who appears as a apparition as to mock him from the grave over opportunities lost.

Willy reflects on his failings as a businessman, father and husband to the inner-suffering Linda (Suzanne Toren), he’s more than haunted by them along with the guilt he carries with an affair he had with floozy company secretary Letta (Hannah Gordon) that seem to hasten his downfall over a regretful episode as he tries to salvage what’s left of his dignity as to right his past wrongs for a chance of being a better man from the empty shell he’s become.

If there’s only one flaw in this otherwise fine production is the hour-and-a-half stretch it takes to get to its intermission in the two-hour running time feels too long and lagging, despite a few minor lines cut from it to keep the play’s flow going as leading star/director Avi Hoffman can manage to the visual projections by David Novack and Ellen Mandel’s jazzy klezmer incidental score around a sparse set design, not to mention the interesting use of Yiddish a majority of the time is a reflection of assimilation of that time period as a example on how far one will go to be fully accepted in a society.

Hoffman’s embodiment of a world-weary man driven by self-delusion and pride is a rich and telling role he does well is something to see; Kahn plays the realistic Biff looking to chase after his own desires that doesn’t needs society’s (or Willy’s) approval with a grounded, solemn conviction that could easily mirror today’s so-called “boomerang” generation; Toren gives the faithful housewife watching her beloved husband disintegrate before her eyes some humanistic trait coated with naïveté and the supporting cast give full backbone to the characters and plot.

Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fun a Seylsman) very much captures the time period it displays and the ideas it may have brought in dispelling the American Dream’s glittery promises that don’t often rewards its champions. While it could have been tightened up here and there, the production is a humble respect to the storyline’s spirit Miller may have had in mind when he wrote it.

A 19th-century gold-plated silver spice box from the Il Ghetto: The Venice Ghetto at 500 photo exhibit at Ashkenaz in marking the foundation of the little-known Italian Jewish community on their 500th anniversary.

Il Ghetto: The Venice Ghetto at 500

Marilyn Brewer Community Space, Bill Boyer Artsport, 235 Queen’s Quay West

September 3-5

Gallery Review

Part of the Ashkenaz Festival long weekend down at Harbourfront Centre, the temporary photo exhibit Il Ghetto looks at the near-forgotten enclave and history of Italian Jews as the Ghetto Nuovo (New Ghetto) marks the half-millennia of its foundation in 1516, once as a segregated area of Venice for the community in question as the world’s first and oldest-surviving ghetto – derived from the Italian word geto (pronounced jetto) for “foundry” – as well as include a few post-Ghetto extensions to mention as a pictorial display.

Founded as a deterrent of Jew intermingling with the city-state’s and pre-Unification Italian Catholic populace, the Ghetto Nuovo became inclusive to other Jewish sects from Italian, Turkey, Ashkenazi (East European) and Sephardi (Spanish) and flourished well with Jewish traders in the tenth century and later in the sixteenth and seventeen centuries as exchanges with Venetian and Italian culture. The community didn’t see themselves as part of Venice until 1797, where revolutionary followers of Napoleon Bonaparte destroyed the gates that locked them up on a nightly curfew for two hundred years, but civil integration wouldn’t fully come until the establishment of the Italian State in 1866 and Unification in 1870.

Photographed keys that Christian soldiers used to lock up the once-segregated Venice Jewish ghetto on a nightly curfew basis.

Photographic proof of the Jewry internment by Venetian administrations for those two centuries are seen in “Keys to the Ghetto” as maintained by Christian guards and a Jacopo De’Barbari reproduction of Anton Kolb’s “Venetie (Venice Perspective)” made in 1500 to the black and white photos of Ernö Munkácsi, who founded the Hungarian Jewish Museum and amateur photographer in the 1930s, takes a lot of great detail of Ghetto Nuovo’s various areas that are still in use like its three synagogues, which he would later publish them in How Did It Happen in 1947.

The exhibit extends the discussion from delving into William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and the depiction of its Judaic trader Shylock, regardless to the fact that Britain expelled its Jewish citizenry in 1290 long before he presented it in 1605, feeding his Protestant nation’s and European continent’s anti-Semitism through to Italy’s post-Unification period to Mussolini’s and the Vatican’s persecution of Jews to Pope John Paul II’s historic 1986 visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome to correct the Catholic Church’s wrongs.

Left-right: “Interior, Scola Italiana (Italian Synagogue)” and “Interior, Scola Leventina (Levantine Synagogue)” shown at the Il Ghetto: The Venice Ghetto at 500 photo exhibit.

Other photos include items from the Ghetto Nuovo like a 19th-century gold-plated silver spice box and showing interiors of the three synagogues and their differences each community had in design styles that rarely get seen by outsiders, including the Venice Jewish Museum in the area. Il Ghetto: The Venice Ghetto at 500 offered a smallish, yet real insight of a little-known community, which was a bit of a refreshing take against the town’s romantic images of canals and gondolas.

Sholom and Motl (Caravan Puppets/Ashkenaz)

Lakeside Terrace, Bill Boyer Artsport, 235 Queen’s Quay West

Monday, September 5; 1 p.m.

Theatre Review

Renowned Bostonian puppetry troupe Caravan Puppets puts a low-keyed spin on their interpretation of Sholem Aleichem’s final book The Adventures of Motl the Cantor’s Son entitled Sholom and Motl through a smattering of Yiddish and simplified storytelling that held its moments about Jewish immigration to early 20th-century America from Europe, if somewhat incohesively.

Narrated by a puppet-like form of Sholem Aleichem, he tells about the young Motl, his older brother Eli and their ever-weepy widowed mother trying to make ends meet in their little village by trying to sell a ice cream-like delicacy made with cream of tartar, water and ice that quickly goes out of business until they decide to emigrate to the United States for a better life.

After a harrowing journey through Western Europe that involves surviving awaiting highwaymen, discouraging immigration committees and a stormy Atlantic passage, Motl’s family and a couple of friends finally arrive as part of the immigrant flux to New York and try their best to make it, be it going on unionized strike at the local factories to becoming their own entrepreneurs as part of the contribution they’ve made to the Great American Melting Pot.

It’s almost too easy to point out some of the 45-minute production’s downsides like its timing of interludes that go on a tad longer that expected or the pre-show onstage choreographic prancing could have been tighter and not so loose. While the interaction with the kids was a nice touch in the venue space given, that too needed some more work since it’s never easy to keep their attention, especially for the play’s time length.

But credit can be given to Caravan in teaching children and adults about the immigration experience in a time when it has become a global hot-button topic of negativity of late by turning it into something that is more positive and the far-reaching benefits it brings to a society, plus what it says about societal inclusiveness to make our communities stronger and better for it. What Sholom and Motl lacks in pace and a straighter storyline, it certainly makes up for the enthusiasm it extols.