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 #59 - WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 21-27, 2015

Forbidding mountaineering drama

Everest (Universal)

Cast: Jason Clark, Emily Watson, Chris Reilly, Josh Brolin

Director: Baltasar Kormákur

Producers: Tim Bevan, Baltasar Kormákur, Nicky Kentish Barnes, Lisa Chasin, Eric Fellner, Evan Hayes, Brian Oliver and Tyler Thompson

Screenplay: William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy

Film Review

Human endeavour stories usually inspire on beating the odds over such overwhelming obstacles and the true-life survivalist drama-thriller Everest does all that, yet it takes one step further than most Hollywood films by showing that tragedies do take place and that not all heroes and heroines get to ride off triumphantly into the sunset to let the reality of it all sink in.

By the 1990s, scaling the world’s highest peak Mount Everest was no longer exclusively reserved for the adventurers and scientific teams of yesterday but for the altitude junkies and extreme sports enthusiasts who could afford it for commercial purposes, raking in a profit for the Nepalese government and private companies offering the ultimate thrill of a lifetime.

One of those pioneering outfits, Adventure Consultants of New Zealand run by Rob Hall (Clark) takes on the usual set of climbers from all walks of life in the spring of 1996: Texan entrepreneur Beck Weathers (Brolin), Japanese expert climber Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) looking to complete her record of seven of the world’s highest mountains, letter carrier Doug Harris (John Hawkes) and his prized customer, Outside Magazine journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) who can get him good publicity for his company.

Arriving in late April in Nepal and trekking to the base camp that literally look like the United Nations of mountain climbers from Taiwanese to South Africans readying to take on the big peak, it becomes a competition of sorts that could endanger those involved in handling the route up to the top. So a compromise between Hall and his American rival Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) of Mountain Madness comes between them in sharing the routes in getting everyone on their groups to safety.

As the two teams head up to the summit on May 10, 1996, Hall’s second-in-command Helen Wilton (Watson) warns them about a horrendous incoming storm rushing towards the Himalayans and tries to get everyone down the nearest camp in time below what is called the “Death Zone” with little or no oxygen supplies, plus the extremely high risk to hypothermia; that overtakes them almost instantly and the real challenge to survive begins.

Director Baltasar Kormákur (Contraband; 2 Guns ) takes an octane approach to this film, from shooting incredibly gorgeous views and the harrowing scenes of the elements, reminiscent of Wolfgang Petersen’s earlier film work that feels so forbiddingly real, thanks in part to Salvatore Totino’s cinematography and Dario Marianelli’s score to complete the experience of bitter coldness and emotional tempos swirling around on who lives and who dies up there (in real life, six of the thirteen mountaineers that day never made it out alive).

The all-star casting is pretty substantial with Clark as the family man who has the tough choice of leaving behind his pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) versus saving his clients, in contrast to Gyllenhaal’s laid-back, cowboy mannerisms adding a little colour to the scene but respectful to his competitor in every way; Brolin truly hangs hard for all his surface machismo breaking down as he realizes his limits but remains unyielding, which worries his wife (Robin Wright) and family back home and Hawkes’ everyman character seems straightforward and humble in his spirit, even as his goal may seem foolhardy against the forces of nature.

Everest isn’t any feel-good tale of man-versus-nature, as the audio effects work too well that you can’t hear the dialogue sometimes over the howling winds and the story may feel like a downer to some. But the relatively good script, as penned by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy; try to keep it as authentic and grounded as they can get it and watching it in the IMAX 3D format is worth a few bucks since it’s breathtaking soaking in all those majestic vistas.

Black Mass appeals, Blunt HURT

2015 Toronto International Film Festival Reviews

Part 2 of 2-part series

Black Mass

Tuesday, September 15; 2:45 p.m.

Scott Cooper’s Black Mass is a broody instrument of a period crime-drama brought to life about the corruptive path of justice marred by ambition and misplaced loyalties from the higher-ups to the criminal underworld for all its grimy and brutal glory on how far one man will go to maintain an ill-founded empire, consumed by both ego and emo.

From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) ruled South Boston with the White Hill Gang and an iron fist dabbling from drugs to prostitution all under the watch of the authorities determined to take him down. Much to his luck, he’s helped out on the inside with his politician brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) and childhood friend and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) pulling a lot of strings to keep the law at bay from him, by recruiting him as an informant which he agrees to do in order to wipe out the local Italian mob and gain the upper hand.

Under this unholy alliance, Bulger literally gets away with murder in dispatching real or imagined enemies and selling weapons to the IRA until the house of cards eventually collapses under Fred Wyshak’s (Corey Stoll) control in stopping the inept running of the local FBI office that finally tightens the noose of those involved willing to cut deals and sending Bulger on the run until his 2011 arrest and conviction sends him to prison.

The director has a clear cut feel for the eras it inhabits in peeling back the layers of corruption involved in Masanobu Takayanagi’s effective cinematography make it look like it was done in the ‘70s without faking it in a sharp, edgy script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth based on the Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill book it’s based upon.

This is Depp’s best performance in years of him becoming the psychopathic Bulger who switches moods easily with such mesmerising devotion to his character (definitely Oscar material), with other brilliant acting by Edgerton, Jesse Plemons as Whitey’s bodyguard and Kevin Bacon as the harried local FBI director Charles McGuire; although Cumberbatch and Dakota Johnson as Whitey’s wife are sorely underused here when they make their appearances that should have mattered more.

Still, Black Mass has a lot to offer under the two-and-a-half hours running time that doesn’t feel like it will consume that much time since Depp puts on another career-defining role and brings more credibility to Cooper’s directorial talent and artistry.

As I Open My Eyes

Tuesday, September 15; 9 p.m.

Set just a few short months before the events that would lead to the 2011 Tunisian Revolution and birthed the Arab Spring movement still shaking the Middle East with its repercussions, the melodrama As I Open My Eyes captures all of that tension that was buried within the North African nation, waiting to explode that director Leyla Bouzid expertly taps into.

Farah Kallel (Baya Medhaffer) follows her dreams of being a singer, away from her parental ambitions for her to study medicine, along with her boyfriend musician Borhéne (Montassar Ayari) and their friends, gathering popularity around Tunis singing songs of longing and frustration against the Ben Ali kleptocracy the previous generations sold their social freedoms over for financial stability, much to her mother’s (Ghalia Benali) anxiety. But their songs cause enough of a stir that will draw attention to the authorities, which may betray relationships and threatens to crush a promising career for Farah.

Bouzid puts on a brilliant directorial debut (the film previously won the Audience Award at this year’s Venice International Film Festival) in writing and filming all that raw energy suffocating under a dictatorial regime from the superb casting of actors and musicians showing that the Arab Spring wasn’t just a phenomenon among a restless young wanting change, but older Tunisians so beaten by the old order, that they also had enough of. And the North African raï-rock score throbs with all those themes mentioned sticks in the head and makes it bob along, as well as some with some women emancipation moments to rise above a male-dominated society flourishes in this film.

As I Open My Eyes co-writer/director Leyla Bouzid (far left) with Baya Medhaffer (in yellow skirt) at September 15 screening Q&A, Scotiabank Cinema

25 April

Wednesday, September 16; 10 a.m.

Through motion-capture animation, New Zealander director Anne Pooling recreates the 1915 Gallipoli campaign of World War I alive for the documentary 25 April as told through the letters and memoirs of six individuals who made up the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) units who lived, fought and died through the carnage in vivid detail.

The film explains the disastrous eight-month battle for the Allied front on the Turkish coastline in trying to cut off the German ally’s sea route to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) where 25,000 ANZAC troops faced off 150,000 Turks from the soldiers to the nurse stationed on the medical ship moored off the shore in watching the bombardment of British ships amid the fear of enemy snipers and submarines lurking in the water to strike.

While the horror of war hangs over the film, the human element seeps in every now and then from a army doctor’s little dog named Purdie bringing some comic relief from the all the insanity going on around them to the brief May 25 armistice as both sides recover and bury each others’ dead, that leads to wonder after the fact, on how you can face your current enemy the same way again?

Done by Flux Animation, Pooling doesn’t miss a beat à la Waltz with Bashir with the realism and some humour in the linear narrative throughout the film exploring the “cruel sport” of war as she does here that would give the Mel Gibson 1981 classic Gallipoli a run for its money, yet honours that very film at the same time.

HURT

Wednesday, September 16; 2:45 p.m.

By a fault, we Canadians are not natural-born hero worshippers since we tend to honour our distinguished citizens in subtle ways. In doing that, if they should perchance fall from grace, the blow to our national psyche is relatively soft (in theory). Not so in the Alan Zweig documentary on Steve Fonyo,HURT, (which won the inaugural juried TIFF Platform Award) because for the first time in many years we get to see what had happened to the once robust and selfless amputee runner at age 18 picked up where Terry Fox had to surrender with his Marathon of Hope.

Following him around for a year, Zweig sees Fonyo, now 50, a little pudgy, balding and living in a state of near-homelessness grappling with a failed marriage and his current girlfriend in Vancouver district of Surrey, as the ex-marathoner describes as “the shittiest neighbourhood in Canada.” And he’s even more bitter since the Canadian government revoked his Order of Canada back in 2010 for a petty offence, among the many he’s accumulated over the years since his 1984-85 Journey of Lives run across the country raised $30 million (adjusted to 2015 dollars for inflation) for cancer research.

As Fox cemented himself into immortalized endearment and Rick “Man in Motion” Hansen created a fulfilling life of charity and family, Fonyo’s attempt for a normal life has not been as successful, from trying various careers from helicopter pilot to banker to mechanic to a guy having to hang around junkies and sordid characters is so shockingly sad to witness, especially when we (and he) sees reminders of his glory days. As he puts it earlier on, “What’s a hero’s life? I don’t know.”

Zweig films all of this rage with unflinching candour in this warts-and-all confessional from Fonyo, who can come off as being opinionated and egotistical at times but very brief moments of his former self do come out (and personally meeting with him after the screening, he can be a downright nice guy). HURT comes across as a stinging indictment on the downside of celebritydom over a fallen national hero, yet nowadays is trying to finally understand why his life spiralled out of control and offers some glimmer of hope.

Steve Fonyo (left) with HURT director Alan Zweig at the September 16 screening Q&A, TIFF Lightbox

Rabin, The Last Day

Friday, September 18; 12:30 p.m.

The assassination of a revered political leader is always painful for any nation to experience, which often leads to introspection on the spirit of that country. Amos Gitai puts this into context with his latest and perhaps his best film to date, Rabin, The Last Day, a powerful docudrama-cum-political thriller on the events of what led up to the gunning down of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and what it has done to Israel since.

Using archival footage and recreated enactments of the evening of November 4, 1995 of the rally at Tel Aviv’s Kings of Israel Square (now Rabin Square) where support for the Oslo I Peace Accords with the Palestinians was at its highest and in a festive mood on a chance for real change for both nations, until the young radical Yigal Amir fired the fatal shots from behind Rabin as he was leaving the rally and shattered the country’s soul.

If one is thinking this will turn into some kind of Israeli JFK, they would be wrong. No conspiracy theories come cropping up, as the film rather shows at what caused a former law student to become a killer looking to derail the Mideast peace initiative, twisted by the uglified mood of the right-wing elements of the day, conservative rabbis dead set against the deal by issuing a din rodef (“law of the pursuer,” a traditional and complex Jewish law permitting extrajudicial murder) on the prime minister, the illegal Israeli settlements on Arab lands that would become the norm in future years and bringing about the rise of one Benyamin Netanyahu.

The director intersects all this, including bits of the Shagmar Commission that looked into the assassination from taking into account of the witnesses at the shooting to security officials trying to shrug off the blame onto one another. In one scene, one peace supporter who points out the glaring lapses of security lashes out at the feeble committee heads whose hands were tied by not also looking at the atmosphere that bred the killing of Rabin that night, you can feel his anger so well justified.

Clocking at almost two-and-a-half hours, Rabin, The Last Day is a lengthy but riveting opus for Gitai at what he calls this project as an “intervention” for his society to properly reflect on that dark night nearly twenty years ago, from the opening interview of Shimon Peres at his modest and humble best still in admiration of his friend’s courage staring down at his possible death by those afraid of a brave new world to seeing the religious and political institutions now in place continuing to hamper Israel from moving forward of itself and for the region.

Beasts of No Nation

Saturday, September 19; 9 p.m.

Nothing could be worse than the loss of a child’s innocence through the experience of war as Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Beasts of No Nation shows about a child soldier’s chronicles in a combat zone is as harrowing and tense as other films of late about the same subject, like War Witch and Blood Diamonds, have shown in that capacity.

Agu (Abraham Atta) leads a very idyllic life in his small town with his family in a unnamed West African country until a civil war rips it apart, sending him to flee into the bush and inadvertingly ends up in the hands of the rebels under the command of The Commandant (Idris Alba) who spares his life and takes him under his wing to become a soldier.

Conditioned and battle-hardened before long, Agu commits his fair share of warfare that slowly starts to unravel with all the atrocities he sees and has done, viewing the contradictive nature of conflict between adults’ power struggles, unseen geopolitics and wanting to regain his humanity before he completely loses it forever.

Gorgeously and brutally filmed in Ghana, Fukunaga does a fairly good adaptation of the acclaimed Uzodinma Iweala novel for the screen (having read the book myself years ago) puts together a impressive casting with Atta in the lead playing as a average kid just caught up in unfortunate times and having his childhood and family stolen from him with the intensity of a veteran actor; Alba as the charismatic and contradictive guerrilla leader is a fine role he performs from his range of being a father figure to behaving downright merciless and Emmanuel “King Kong” Nii Adom Quaye as Agu’s mute comrade-in-arms Strika is equally outstanding when his silence speaks in volumes.

But for all of that, Beasts of No Nation feels too polished in the production values and doesn’t show enough grit for all the horror and insanity of conflict, even to showcase this over the real world concern of child soldiers everywhere and the two-hour-plus running time does make it tedious at times. In any case, Fukunaga does the novel justice in his cinematography accompanied by Dan Romer’s ambient score to make the film just as terrifying.

Je Suis Charlie

Sunday, September 20; 1 p.m.

Maybe it’s way too soon to have made a documentary in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, France that occurred just a few months ago, but the father-son documentarian duo Daniel and Emmanuel Leconte manage to do a honourable job with Je Suis Charlie, the battle cry slogan for freedom of expression birthed from the violent tradgedy; in digging deep into what caused the attacks by two radicalized gunmen out to make a statement against the controversial political cartoon magazine for their blasphemy against Islam that shook the world.

With interviews from the cartoonists and staff that survived the ordeal and media coverage of those three days following January 7, 2015 that gripped France in fear and horror as the hunt for the two Franco-Arabic brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi belonging to al-Qa'eda Yemen extended into attacks against the local Jewish community, it begins with the resurrection of the magazine after a brief hiatus in 2007 with their satirical pens and inks on the issues of the day from national politics to the global spotlights in an often crude manner.

Often the targets of racism by those who take offence to their work, especially in mocking fundamentalists of whatever religious stripe – in this case, Islam – and winning each time under freedoms of the press and speech, the ultimate price for artistic expression was given by the lives of seven cartoonists simply doing their job and the outpouring of support from their fellow citizens is the heart of the doc, as well as looking at the backlash that followed of victim-blaming that they brought the violence of madmen onto themselves, is bitter (as a early e-mail to the magazine over publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed judging a beauty pageant in a mocking sense, eerily predicts: “Shame on you. Prepare for the worst”).

The narration is emotionally overdone in its tone for the two-hour Je Suis Charlie considering how fresh and raw it remains in the collective conscience, plus the final testimonies of the slain cartoonists and their memories from their colleagues ring as a sentimental wash over, but at least its heart by the filmmakers is in the right place.

The admiration for Charlie Hebdo to continue publishing after the shootings and since is commendable as the film demonstrates, as one of the survivors recalls in the doc that one of the gunmen shouted at the end of the massacre, “We killed Charlie Hebdo !”, and in defiance proved to them, to themselves and the world, that they had truly failed in their mission.

Room

Sunday, September 20; 8 p.m.

Abduction drama Room, based on the Booker Prize-nominated bestseller by Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donaghue, was given the People’s Choice Award and there’s no better film at TIFF 2015 that could have pulled a distinctive gravity toward the Canadian/Irish production with wide spread appeal.

Narrated by Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a five-year old boy who has known nothing of the world outside what he calls the Room along with his mother Joy (Brie Larson), both prisoners of Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) who kidnapped and locked her away in a backyard shed seven years ago as a teen, forcing her to be his weekly sex slave and fathering her son. Trying her best to raise him with whatever means available under such deplorable conditions, their plans of escape from Old Nick can only be done by Jack and the aftermath of reintegrating with the world becomes a battlefield to regain a sense of normalcy for both of them.

Donaghue sublimely adapts her novel for the screen for all the impalpable tension built between the characters and situations and expresses a whimsical joy of Jack’s life observations of both worlds not as plain childlike naivety or survival mentalities, but with old worldly wisdom despite the sensory overload it has upon him played by Tremblay with spirited believability. Tremblay does a fine turn as Joy coping with institutionalization issues and post-traumatic stress disorder to all the sudden adjustments; Joan Allen makes for a fine grandmother trying to connect to Jack, but William F. Macy's role as Joy’s distant father yet unable to grasp his daughter’s ordeal could have been stretched out more.

Shot exclusively in Toronto, Room earns the rare distinction of a Canadian-made film that its citizenry and TIFF audience can truly be proud of for Lenny Abrahamson’s deft direction and handling of the matter in putting together such a mesmerising film.

Wavelengths: Fireworks (Archives)/The Forbidden Room – A Living Poster/Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton

Gallery Reviews

For Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Fireworks (Archives), the Cannes-winning Thai filmmaker takes the current state of his country’s turbulent political climate into a fever dream for the six-minute video installation at a spot in the Art Gallery of Ontario. With archival photos of the Thai military forged with modern shots of mini-pyrotechnics flickering amongst the animist figures of the Sala Keoku Temple in his northern home region, actors dart in and out and become one with the statues.

Video still from Fireworks (Archives)

This memento mori experimental video had some visual styling in the subject about memory and the immobility of the average citizen left out of the democratic process does give something to think over, but if it were just a little bit longer it would have been more absorbing to make a huge impact on the visual in such a large space for a short project.

Within the confines of TIFF Lightbox’s lower floor, two installations almost cut from the same cloth about cinema itself made their marks. The first one; The Forbidden Room – A Living Poster is a curious creature by Galen Johnson using digital morphing and scenes from a collaborative film project with Guy Maddin has that vintage haunted horror film look is telling as ghostly spectres from hell loop about in under two minutes, serves as a ironic comment about the impermanence of film from disintegrating film stock of yesteryear to the current digital format that also suffer from data loss.

Left to right: Stills from The Forbidden Room – A Living Poster and Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton

Also from Maddin comes Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, a satirical and subversive ciné-essay video he makes, with the help of Galen Johnson and Evan Johnson; mainly out of forced desperation in taking on a making-of documentary job of a future DVD extra features project for Paul Gross’ Afghan War film, Hyena Road (also shown at TIFF). Making comments about hockey legends Guy Lafleur and Tim Horton, spoofing spaghetti Westerns and randomly bored on set in Jordan on doing a journeyman stint and a corpse extra when he’d rather be doing art, Maddin does a revisionist stab at these things (love the psychedelic science-fiction battle sequence and hypnotic camera drone shots, including lasers) including anti-war comments “to Paul’s digestible adventurism” in the mix of black-and-white and colour for the half-hour video.

Questioning the concept of war cinema, the national and his own childhood obsession with hockey and cinematic art itself, Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton is an imposing and funny work where even Maddin boldly asks in all seriousness: “Is a war movie just a funeral without a body?”

Festival Summary

TIFF 2015 made a very good show for its 40th anniversary incarnation with some decent selections with my favourites for this year: Overpass; The Ballad of Immortal Joe; Violet; Black Mass; 25 April; HURT; Rabin, The Last Day and Room. The move of the People’s Choice Award screening to Roy Thomson Hall was a wise (and fancier) choice venue after years at Ryerson and choosing a Canadian film for the award is a fitting victory lap for the organizers and fest filmgoers, proving that our own films don’t suck.

And the opening vignettes for every film from the actors and filmmakers to describe what cinema means to a wider audience the fest have been giving us for four decades (the David Cronenberg treatise on filming in Toronto and J.K. Simmons’ analogy over the cinematic villain were the best ones), says it all.

Other than the drizzly opening weekend weather that put on a slight damper and unprecedented security measures in screening for Je Suis Charlie (last time I saw police guard detail inside a cinema on that level was when I saw Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ ), this TIFF could be considered as one of their best ones in a good while.

Illusionist recreates Victorian-era parlour thriller pastime

Nicolas Wallace (left) and director Luke Brown (right) on the set of Séance

Hamilton-based magician brings his hit horror show Séance to Toronto

Theatre Preview

Master illusionist Nicolas Wallace brings his critically-acclaimed magic show Séance for Toronto audiences at the Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Avenue) starting this week in a run-up to Halloween in taking the popular 19th-century parlour pastime into the modern era with a horror twist and is the first known attempt to incorporate an actual séance into a theatrical entertainment experience.

While most today would consider the séance as a lot of mumbo-jumbo and something high school and/or college kids pull off during a sleepover, it was once a serious thing to spend a Friday night from the mid- to late-1800s across Europe and North America, even the great escape artist Harry Houdini was a firm believer in it. So much so was the practice into the spiritual occult that the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was formed and middle and upper class people got hooked into it.

For this immersive experience, Wallace takes audiences on a exploratory trip into the unexplained and unknown in getting a audience member to become a medium every night of the show and taking everyone into the unpredictable beyond. Co-created with director and producer Luke Brown, Séance came to life when Wallace and Brown met when Wallace was consulting on illusions for a Theatre Aquarius production in their native Hamilton of Monstrous Invisible about science-fiction scribe H.P. Lovecraft that Brown was directing at the time. Since he expressed a long held interest to Brown in conducting a séance as theatrical experience and Brown, who was caught up in learning about the haunted history of Theatre Aquarius’ own theatrical space, was hooked on the idea.

“There was no way of knowing what would happen until we just did this,” Wallace commented, who was named the Canadian Champion of Magic by the Canadian Association of Magicians at a recent competition. “We got people in the room and we just tried it, and, without giving anything away – stuff happens.”

With Hamilton audience turning it into a little sold-out hit back in its 2010 debut, Brown believes Séance will do the same for Torontonians and the curious to come out and get spooked by it, as he puts it: “My hope is that people walk away after having spent eighty minutes in the room having experienced something that 80 minutes before they would have deemed impossible.”

***

Séance begins this Friday (September 25) and runs through October 11. For tickets/information, call 416-504-7529 or visit: artsboxoffice.ca or theseance.ca.