Saturday, January 13, 2018

Theatre: Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, The Lorax

It is interesting to me how our age of globalization has impacted the theatre world.  In 2017, multiple Canadian shows including Come From Away, Kim's Convenience, Spoon River and Of Human Bondage have played in New York.  London's West End is littered with American productions including The Book of Mormon, Aladdin and The Lion King.  Here in Toronto, the first three shows of our 2017/18 Mirvish subscription have all been from overseas.  North By NorthWest originated in Melbourne Australia, while The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night and The Lorax both hail from London.  Each of these shows is based on another more famous source from the iconic Alfred Hitchcock movie, the compelling book by Mark Haddon and the lyrical, moralistic children's story by Dr. Seuss respectively.  None of these sources were easy to adapt for live theatre and it was fascinating to see the creative ways that each of these stage shows achieved this.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night is told from the perspective of a moderately functional autistic teenager named Christopher Boone, as he deals with his unique stresses of every day life while unraveling the mysteries of who killed a neighbour's dog, and what happened to his mother.  Author Mark Haddon does an amazing job of capturing the mindset of Christopher, who is extremely intelligent and meticulous in many ways, but also socially regressed in others. Prior to watching the play, I had encountered this story in two different ways, each giving me a different experience into Christopher's world.  I first listened to it on an audio book, which was read aloud and recorded onto CDs that you could borrow from the library.  The audio book narrator took on Christopher's voice, reciting lists and explaining facts as the boy saw them, in a matter-of-fact, often confused manner.  Any dialogue by other characters such as Christopher's father, his therapist Sibohan, or the neighbours around his block, are voiced by Christopher, as he interprets his understanding of what they said.

Listening to the CDs, I discovered that the chapter were denoted in incremental prime numbers, reflecting the way Christopher thought.  When I first heard the chapters jump from 3 to 5, I thought I had somehow skipped a section until I realized what was happening.  After thoroughly enjoying listening to the story, I decided to read it in book format and was surprised by all the illustrations found on the pages, visually capturing Christopher's thought processes as he documented them in a journal that he was writing.  Christopher drew flow charts, maps of his neighbourhood, facial expressions that he tried to comprehend, formations of stars, and red vs yellow cars.  Both the audio and the paper book formats did an excellent job of capturing Christopher's unique thoughts and feelings.

Coming from London's National Theatre, the set of the live version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, uses a large cubic box made up of video screens on the walls, floor and ceiling to project images reflecting Christopher's thought processes and how he sees the world.  Unlike the book, the other characters in the story speak their own dialogue and interact with Christopher, but the interactions are filtered through his eyes and interpretations.  The result is innovative, visually stunning and very effective.

I never read Dr. Seuss' children's book The Lorax when I was young, so to prepare for attending the live show of this moralistic tale of corporate greed and pleas for environmental protection, I watched the delightful 1972 TV animated short based on his book.  Narrated by actor Eddie Albert, this rendition perfectly captured the spirit of the original, by faithfully following Dr. Seuss' poetic text and whimsical illustrations.  The book is about an overly ambitious businessman called "The Once-ler" who creates an industry by chopping down Truffula trees in order to mass-produce "thneeds" (a knitted material that can be manipulated into any form).  Blinded by greed, the Once-ler ignores the warnings about the environmental dangers of his endeavours that are delivered by the Lorax, "who speaks for the trees".  Eventually the Once-ler destroys the environment, forcing the fish, birds and animals to flee and when he chops down the last tree, his business collapses and he is left with a wasteland.  The Once-ler tells the tale of his demise to a young boy, and realizes that there is still hope for the world if he can get the next generation to take action.  The Lorax left a rock with the message "Unless", meaning "UNLESS someone like you. cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not...".   This seems to be quite the dark tale to be told as a children's story!  It is interesting that the Once-ler is never shown except for his long green hands that are reminiscent of The Grinch, Dr. Seuss' other iconic green character.

 I also checked out the 2012 full-featured animated movie of The Lorax, and to my horror, this  version totally ruined the charm and sophistication of the source material.  While the basic story was still there, this movie did not use Dr. Seuss' lyrical text and instead produced a mindless animation that included all the cliche-ish tropes of modern cartoons, including the addition of the "quirky" family and a "love interest" for the boy, an additional villain even more evil than the Once-ler, and the typical chase scenes, mayhem and destruction that now seems to be mandatory in cartoons and modern live action movies.  I find it difficult to believe that the estate of Dr. Seuss sanctioned this travesty.

It was therefore with some misgivings that I attended the live action show.  Would this version from London's Old Vic retain the wonder of the book and the animated short, or would it follow in the misguided footsteps of the 2012 movie?  I am happy to say that the play does indeed capture all the charm and whimsy of the book, while still managing to extend the show to the running time of a full length play, adding fun song and dance numbers that fit in seamlessly with the plot.  To support the extra plot and exposition, additional rhyming verses were created that worked so well that they could not be differentiated from the original, unless you could quote the Dr. Seuss book line by line.  The Lorax was represented as a large puppet that requires three puppeteers (one of them also providing the voice) to manipulate.  I felt sorry for the puppeteer who controlled the Lorax's legs since he had to squat and move around like a crab.  The resulting range of motion for the Lorax was impressive.  The costumes and sets were gorgeous and perfectly reflected Seuss' illustrations.  The best feature of the sets was the colourful Truffala trees which stood tall and strong at the beginning, then descended into the ground as they were cut down.  This play exceeded my expectations by far, and delighted children and adults alike.  So far, Mirvish has picked three winning shows to start off its 2017/18 subscription series.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Theatre: Picture This, North By NorthWest, Life After

We are so lucky to have so many options for good live theatre in Toronto.  Over the past month, my husband Rich and I watched three plays from three different theatre companies, including a comedy, a thriller and a musical.

Playing at Soulpepper, Picture This is translated from "The Battle of Waterloo", a Hungarian comedy written in 1924 by playwright Melchior Lengyel.  Picture This is directed by Morris Panych  whose previous production of another Hungarian comedy called Parfumerie was such an overwhelming success that we were excited to watch this one as well.  The comedy opens in the lobby of a grand hotel in Budapest where a group comprised of several actors, a producer, director and composer, all mill around in hopes of meeting and being discovered by Red, a big-time Hollywood film producer.  Through a series of misunderstandings, pretty actress Milli and down-on-his luck producer Romberg assume that Red's friend, the meek, henpecked salesman Mr. Brown, is also a rich movie financier.  Smitten by Milli and excited at the prospect of rebelling against his controlling wife, Mr. Brown agrees to finance a production of a Napoleonic epic called The Battle of Waterloo, putting up his life savings of $5000 to get the film started.  

Although the premise sounded promising, unfortunately Picture This does not come close to the endearing charm of Parfumerie.  The first act in the hotel is played out like a farce with guests and bellhops entering and exiting stage left and right, with a continuous mix up and interchange of luggage which I thought would play into the plot, but ended up to just be a big distraction.  Their initial interchanges set up Milli and Romberg to become a romantic pairing, but this never really comes to fruition and there is not much chemistry between them.

The second act deals with the filming of the movie, culminating in the big reveal that Brown is a fraud. In addition to Milli as Josephine, the cast of the film includes a portly, diva-esque and lecherous actor Boleslav playing Napoleon and a ham actor Hudasek who has to change costumes and portray soldiers on both sides of the battle due to insufficient funding to cast more actors.  Boleslav's temperamental demands include sexual favours from Milli, which are meant to be funny but fall flat completely, especially in light of all the sexual harassment and casting couch scandals currently in the news.  While there were some humorous moments in this play, they were not sustained enough and the characters were not developed enough for you to actually care what happens to them.

As part of our Mirvish theatre subscription, we watched North By NorthWest, based on the classic Alfred Hitchcock spy thriller, once again employing the plot device of mistaken identity. Assumed to be American spy George Caplan, ad man Roger Thornhill is kidnapped by Russian spies.  This leads to multiple chase scenes and attempts on Thornhill's life that involve intricate action sequences including a high-speed car careening down a steep path, the iconic attack by a crop duster plane and the climatic chase atop Mount Rushmore.  One might be skeptical about how all that action could be recreated live on stage, but the imaginative creators of this show were up to the challenge with some ingenious use of pre-taped background video overlaid with live video of miniatures being manipulated by props-men standing in metal cages on either side of the stage.  To simulate car scenes, the protagonists sit on a bench seat that is physically propelled around the stage while the scenery whizzes by on the video screen behind them.  Video is also used to highlight important plot points such as displaying the secret message that Thornhill reads off a piece of paper, newspaper headlines or showing the liquor being poured by the spies that Thornhill is forced to drink as part of the plan to stage his drunken fatal car crash.  It took a while for us to realize what was happening but once we did, it was fascinating to watch.  In a scene on a moving train, the props operator manipulated a cutout of trees in a circular motion, which made it seem like the train was passing through the countryside.

The big payoff in this digital wizardry came in the famous crop duster scene which generated all the tension and excitement as the scene from the movie.  The prop man even left his cage, forming a wide arc with the miniature plane to simulate its path on the video screen.  It felt like catching a glimpse of the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain.  The simulation of Mount Rushmore was planned more as a joke, using closeup shots of the faces of four cast members to represent the iconic mountain.  The actual chase scene was simulated with the use of moving boxes and tables which did not work quite as well in terms of stagecraft.  The one disappointment for us was that sitting in our subscription seats in the upper balcony of the Royal Alexandra, the top part of the screen was cut off from view, which diminished the impact of the special effects.  I wish that Mirvish would take this into consideration when selecting a theatre to stage their plays, or that at least they would warn us so that we could have upgraded our seats prior to the show.  Nevertheless, we really enjoyed watching this faithful live reproduction of a Hitchcock masterpiece that included the pre-requisite "Hitchcock cameo". 

Finally, we watched a new, original Canadian musical called Life After at the Canstage Berkeley Theatre.  It is written by Britta Johnson, who also wrote the delightfully ghoulish musical Blood Ties that was featured on the TV show Orphan Black before being staged at the 2017 Next Stage Fringe Festival.  Life After deals with the exploration of grief, guilt and forgiveness in face of a tragedy that is couched in a mystery.  Alice, her sister Kate, and her mother Beth deal with the aftermath when her father Frank dies in a car accident en route to a business trip.  Alice in particular is wracked with guilt since she had a major unresolved argument with her father prior to his leaving, and ignored his voice message asking her to call him so that they could make peace.  Alice becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of where and when he died, since he should have been on a flight out of town by then.  As it turns out, the mystery is a red herring since solving it doesn't change anything.  Only after working through the stages of grief, forgiveness and acceptance can Alice start to move on.  

This is an extremely ambitious and emotional show that somehow cuts through the melodrama with snippets of humour, mostly supplied by the inane chattering of Alice's best friend Hannah, and from the social commentary provided by a trio who play the role of the "Greek Chorus" as well as ensemble.  Britta Johnson wrote some of the songs years ago when she was only 18, tapping into her own personal grief after her father died of cancer.  Her sister and collaborator Anika Johnson performs in the show as one of members of the chorus.  The frequent repetition of lyrics and high soprano voices make this show feel more like light opera than the typical musical fare.  I can certainly admire and appreciate the powerful, touching story and intricate songs, but I must admit that since I don't particularly like opera or soprano voices, I enjoyed Johnson's Blood Ties much more.  I do look forward to watching future works by the extremely talented Britta Johnson, who is the inaugural recipient of a 3-year residency to produce 3 original musicals for The Musical Stage Company.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

TIFF 2017 - Dramas / Action

Of the remaining dramas and action movies described in this final blog entry of my Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2017 experience, I watched two amazing movies, two movies that I thought were OK, one that had potential but could not quite follow through on its premise, and one that should have been great based on the reputation and past work of the director, but turned out to be truly awful.

Eye on Juliet was the first movie that I watched in the IMAX screening room within the Scotiabank Theatre complex.  Set mostly in Morocco, this was the perfect film to view in this theatre, even though the movie was not filmed in IMAX format, since the much larger screen showed off the expansive arid landscape of the Sahara desert with the Atlas Mountains in the background.  If only there were a few more rows in the theatre, as even from the back row, it felt too close for my far-sighted vision relative to the giant screen. 
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Eye On Juliet turned out to be beautiful but unconventional love story.  Stationed in Detroit, drone operator Gordon monitors oil pipelines in Morocco, guarding them against vandalism and bandits who want to steal the oil.  These crab-like drones have cameras that provide video feeds including infrared images, and have translation capabilities that allow the operator to understand foreign languages as well as to translate his spoken English into other languages, using a range of tones from smoothing to menacing.  A morose Gordon, who had just been dumped by his girlfriend, becomes intrigued by pretty Moroccan girl who is wandering around in the hillside near the pipes.  Using his drone to spy on her, Gordon learns that she is planning to escape Morocco with her lover to avoid an arranged marriage with an older man.  Dubbing her "Juliet" after Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers, Gordon is determined to help her.  This was a wonderful movie that I was surprised to learn was a co-production by Canada, France and Morocco, directed by Canadian Kim Nguyen.
Angels Wear White is a fabulous movie by Chinese director Vivian Qu, whose film was the only one by a female director to be invited to the Venice film festival.  Although not quite the classic definition of a film-noir movie as described in the synopsis, it certainly has a noir feel in terms of mood, tone, pace, lighting and dark subject matter filled with pessimism, fatalism and menace.  Mia, a teenaged runaway without papers, is illegally working as cleaning staff at a small hotel in a sleepy beach-side resort.  One night, the receptionist Lily asks Mia to cover the front desk for her while she goes on a date.  While Mia is watching the security monitors, she witnesses the prelude to the sexual abuse of two 12-year-old school girls by a senior government official, but does not want to get involved due to her own precarious status.  The rest of the movie revolves around the investigation and cover-up of this event, focusing mainly on one of the girls named Wen, who has been neglected by her divorced parents and left to run wild.  This movie provides a view into the rampant corruption in China, where justice is only for the rich and powerful and everyone only cares about looking out for themselves.  The one altruistic character in the movie is a female lawyer who works relentlessly to find proof of the girls’ assault and to bring the perpetrator to justice.  In a Hollywood movie, justice would prevail in the end, but this is China where anyone can and will be bribed.  The young females in Angels Wear White, including Wen, Mia and even Lily, are all victims of their social standing, environment and circumstances.  Each of these characters show great resilience in face of the hardships that they face.  There is a repeating motif of a giant sculpture of Marilyn Monroe in her flapping white dress from The Seven Year Itch, a symbol of innocence, vulnerability and sexuality.  Like Wen and Mia at the end of the movie, was Marilyn yet another angel who wore white.

Number One is a French movie about women fighting for equal rights and trying to crash through the corporate glass ceiling by having one of their own be named CEO of a major corporation.  Facing misogyny and dirty office politics, the women resort to unethical campaigns of their own in order to win the day.  It seems sad, especially after also watching the movie Battle of the Sexes which took place in the 1970s, that this movie is still so relevant today.  Although there have definitely been advances in opportunities for women since Billy Jean King fought for equal pay for female tennis players, there is still so far to go before we can claim there is true equality between the genders.

The movie Tulipani: Love, Honour and a Bicycle is a co-production between Netherlands, Italy and Canada, as the tale spans all three countries.  It starts off in Montreal where Anna is promising to fulfill her dying mother’s last wish, to have her ashes returned to be scattered in her home town of Puglia, Italy.  Arriving in Puglia with the ashes stored in a large Tupperware container that her mother left as a “parting gift”, Anna is met by two locals, Immacolata and her son Vito, who claim to know her and her mother from years ago.  What follows is a lengthy flashback as Immacolata recalls the story of how Anna’s parents met and came to Italy, and how she ended up with her adopted mother in Canada.  Anna’s parents Gauke and Ria were both Dutch refugees who met on a ship while escaping the great flood of 1953.  Wanting to avoid the constant rain in their home country, they immigrated to the little Italian village where they made friends, planted tulips that they brought with them, and started a business selling them.  The tale of what happened to her parents is told in an almost fairy tale-like manner that is full of romance, adventure and mystery, as Anna learns about her heritage and her identity.

Black Cop has a very interesting premise in its attempt to bring attention to the issue of racial profiling and discrimination against blacks.  Surprisingly this is not an American movie but rather a Canadian one.  A political satire written and directed by Corey Bowles from the Trailer Park Boys and based on his personal experiences, the movie deals with a black police officer, known only as “Black Cop”, who is considered a traitor to his race by other blacks.   When he is racially profiled and stopped for no reason while jogging off duty, Black Cop snaps and takes matters into his hands.  He turns the tables on white people, treating them as white cops have treated blacks.  He stops a white doctor jogging in an affluent neighbourhood after hearing a bulletin about a suspicious figure in the area wearing a hoodie, pulls over a vehicle with a young white couple and forces them out of the car and cuffs them when they question why they were stopped, and harasses a white student with a backpack.  When the student becomes scared and runs away, he pretends to shoot him with his finger and the student falls to the ground before getting up and continuing to run away.  It all seems so outrageous until you realize that these things actually happen to blacks except that they get shot with real guns.  The concept and social commentary of this movie was great, but there wasn’t enough content or expansion on the theme to sustain the entire movie.  One of the most poignant speeches that Black Cop makes is when he explains how he patrols the airwaves for incidents involving blacks and rushes over so that he is the one to make the arrest.  This is his way of protecting them since he knows that at least he would use restraint.

My husband Rich loves Hong Kong shoot-em-up action movies, so he was most excited about watching Manhunt, by director John Woo, whose credentials include the Hollywood gem Faceoff, and highly rated Chinese movies including Hardboiled and The Killers.  Unfortunately we found Manhunt is definitely not Woo’s best work.  The plot is convoluted, over-the-top and totally unimaginative, as it reuses elements from previous iconic movies of this genre and mashes them all together to make an incoherent mess.  Manhunt is a combination of “The Fugitive” meets “Lethal Weapon” meets “Limitless” or “Captain America : Winter Soldier” meets any “James Bond” movie, trotting out the tropes of the innocent man on the run, the suicidal cop who takes outrageous chances to catch the “bad guy” before realizing it is not who he initially thought it was, the evil pharmaceutical company manufacturing drugs for nefarious purposes with frightening side effects, and chase/action/fight scenes involving so many different groups of villains and protagonists that it is difficult to keep track of who is attacking whom.  The action scenes were actually fun and exciting, but nothing new.  They involve chases on foot, cars, motorcycles, subway cars and seadoos, as well as fight sequences using guns, machine guns, samourai swords, kung fu, and acrobatic battles while the cop and the man on the run are handcuffed together.  Although nothing we have not seen before, Woo at least knows how to film great action scenes, so had these sequences been couched with an interesting, intelligent story line, all would have been well.  But what really tanked this movie was the extremely cheesy, dialogue delivered in a stilted manner in three languages —Japanese, Mandarin and English.  The problem is that none of the actors can speak English properly, and their stiff, unnatural pronunciation undercuts any tension or emotional scenes, resulting in unintentional laugh-out-loud moments.  This was a very disappointing movie, especially considering that it is clear John Woo can do better.

After 1.5 weeks of watching “advanced screenings” of movies prior to the start of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), followed by 9 intensive days of watching films from day to night during the festival, averaging 4 movies a day, Rich and I are exhausted but thrilled.  Thank goodness for the Bell Lightbox Blue Room Members' Lounge, which allowed us to rest and even take a quick nap between screenings.  We watched so many great movies this year, and due to our Patron’s Circle TIFF membership, the experience of watching Press and Industry (P&I) screenings and not requiring to line up most of the time was fabulous.  Not paying for specific movies also made the opportunity cost of inevitably selecting a bad one much less painful.  I chose to watch Sheikh Jackson, supposedly a comedy about an Egyptian Muslim imam (prayer leader) who is thrown for a loop by the unexpected death of his idol Michael Jackson.  I sat through about 40 minutes of slow-paced scenes of people praying and chanting and not much else happening, without a single humorous moment before I finally gave up on the movie.  As I walked out of the theatre, I quickly checked the P&I schedule and realized that I could walk into another movie that had been on my short list with 5 minutes to spare.  I ended up watching the documentary Supersize Me 2 – Holy Chicken which I thoroughly enjoyed.  Now that we have experienced TIFF in this manner, I’m not sure we can ever go back to the time-intensive process of watching public screenings.

Monday, September 11, 2017

TIFF 2017 - Comedies

I have a preference for happy or funny movies, which I find much more entertaining, albeit perhaps not as thought-provoking as dark or depressing dramas about serious issues. When making my movie selections for the film festival, I tend to gravitate towards the ones that sound cheerful, at least based on the synopsis. Unfortunately experience has thought me that the 1-3 paragraph writeup for a movie might not always reflect the actual movie, especially for foreign films where sometimes the humour just does not translate. (Note to self .. must remember that I don’t find Korean “comedies” to be funny). The movies of this genre that I picked this year elicited a wide range of responses, from a light chuckle to roaring laughter to uneasy laughter at some dark comedies.

Of the 42 movies that I watched at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, my favourite by far is C’est La Vie.  This hilarious French comedy about a high-end wedding planner named Max had the audience howling with laughter from the first frame through to the last.  The movie opens with a scene where Max is negotiating with a young couple about the cost of their impending wedding, which is to be held at a location with a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower.  When they pressure him repeatedly to reduce expenses by being “more inventive”, the exasperated Max finally snaps and goes on an extended rant where he suggests that the guests contribute to the meal by bringing coleslaw in Tupperware, beer and lemonade to make shandies and fruit purée in plastic cups for dessert.

The rest of the movie involves the preparation for and execution of an elaborate all-inclusive wedding, held on the estate of a gorgeous 18th Century castle. Max needs to deal with an obnoxiously pompous groom, a head waiter who corrects everyone’s grammar and is infatuated with the bride, a troublesome wedding photographer who is rude to the guests, eats all the appetizers and sleeps with the groom’s mother, a temperamental wedding singer who is feuding with Max’s second-in-command, as well as other blunders and issues caused by his huge staff.  To top it off, Max’s mistress Joisette is tired of waiting for him to get a divorce and makes him jealous by flirting with a young waiter.

Everything that could possibly go wrong does, including meat being spoiled, food poisoning, power outages, awkward auto-corrected text messages and mishaps with the entertainment that includes a run-away helium balloon and over-exploding fireworks.  The movie is even more funny because the jokes arise from situational humour as opposed to slapstick comedy.  Despite the large cast, there is enough character development that you get to know and care about the goofy and beleaguered wedding crew.  After watching so many serious, depressing movies, it was such a joy to watch and enjoy a movie whose only goal is to make you laugh.

Based on the trailers and ads, I thought Downsizing was going to be a lighthearted science fiction-based comedy about the development of the technology to shrink people to a fraction of their original sizes, as a way of physically and economically “downsizing”.  Given that the movie prominently featured comedic actress Kristen Wiig in all the promotional images, I was expecting a movie full of jokes exploring the trials and tribulations about being shrunken and miniaturized.  The first 10-15 minutes of the film fulfilled this expectation.  But then the movie took a hard turn and morphed into a serious, preachy melodrama and morality tale about climate change and saving the environment.  Had I been prepared for and chosen to watch such a movie, I would have appreciated a touching, thought-provoking narrative with beautifully shot visuals of Norwegian fjords.  But since I was led to believe that I would be watching a comedy, I felt a bit of bait-and-switch had occurred by the end of the film.

Mediation Park is a sweet, low-keyed Canadian drama/comedy (dramedy?) about an immigrant Chinese family consisting of Bing, the stern but loving patriarch, the meek and obliging mother Maria, their brassy daughter Ava who is married to her white husband Jonathan, and an estranged son Charlie that Bing forbids his family from seeing, even to attend Charlie’s upcoming wedding.  Maria, who does not speak much English, can not drive and has never worked in Canada, feels beholden to Bing since he supports her financially and emotionally, discouraging her from making friends or seeking independence.  She seems content or at least resigned to her lot, until she discovers that Bing has been cheating on her.  This spurs Maria to question her loyalty to Bing for the first time, and to tentatively expand her horizons.  She befriends a group of neighbours and joins them in illegally renting out her parking spot to make some money, learns how to ride a bicycle to get around town and secretly follows Bing in order to spy on him with his mistress.  This movie is carried by Chinese actress Pei-Pei Cheng, whose beautiful smile lights up the screen, and whose escalating acts of defiance make you want to stand up and cheer.  Ava is played by Canadian actress of Korean heritage Sandra Oh, who I guess was considered to be Chinese-looking enough for the role, even though she could not speak Cantonese like the actors who played her parents.

I watched a pair of Canadian comedies both dealing with nerdy, socially awkward high school students trying to fit in with their peers.  Refreshingly though, neither character is portrayed as a victim.  Instead, they are written as brave, confident individuals who are not afraid to stand up for themselves.  In Public Schooled, Liam has been home-schooled and kept relatively isolated through his entire childhood by his over-protective single mother Claire.  Although scholastically brilliant, Liam is socially inept through lack of exposure to other kids his own age.  Claire has arranged for him to take a high school equivalency test, after which he can go straight to university, with the goal to attend Cambridge.  Liam aces the test, finishing in half the allotted time.  But as he is about to leave, he spots a beautiful blond student with a prosthetic leg and immediately becomes smitten.   Quickly retrieving his submission, Liam purposely tanks the test so that he can attend high school for the first time.  Like Meditation Park, Public Schooled is about gaining independence, but it is also about learning to let go.  Claire is so needy, clingy and possessive of her son that it would have been more than a little bit creepy, had not the part been played by actress Judy Greer who exudes so much wacky charm that you tend to give her the benefit of the doubt.  Comedian Russell Peters has a great cameo as a weird guidance councilor.

The heroine of Don't Talk to Irene does not care that she is short, dumpy, wears glasses and does not fit the stereotypical mold of a high school cheerleader. Regardless, Irene is determined to become a cheerleader, just like her mom Lydia was before Lydia became pregnant as a teenager.  Once again, Lydia is the over-protective mother who tries to shelter Irene to prevent her from being picked on and getting hurt.  When Irene is caught up in a fake hazing ritual for becoming a cheerleader, she and her bullies are suspended from school and sent to the local retirement home as punishment.  Once there, Irene gives the sedate, depressed elders a new purpose in life, by corralling them into forming a dance troop (using Lydia’s old cheerleading moves) so that they can enter a reality dance contest.  This movie is about empowerment, breaking stereotypes and pursuing your dreams.  Both Don’t Talk to Irene and Public-Schooled are pleasant and entertaining, if not terribly realistic movies.  Unfortunately, in real schools, both these kids would probably have been harassed and bullied much more than what was depicted.  But such is the magic of movies that they give you hope for a better world.

Like Death of Stalin, Under the Tree is another dark comedy that had moments where you pause and wonder why you are laughing at such shocking events.  But where Death of Stalin was played for laughs throughout the movie, much of Under the Tree feels like a slow psychological thriller with the occasional comedic scenes.  This is an Icelandic film about neighbours feuding over a shade tree.  The tree resides on the property of an older cat-owing couple, Inga and Baldvin, who are grieving the disappearance and apparent suicide of their oldest son.  The tree casts shade on the property of their neighbours Konrad and Eyborg, who let their large German Shepherd run wild, often onto the elder couple’s yard.  The feud escalates from a war of words to increasingly serious acts of retribution and retaliation.  The last 10 minutes of the movie have you laughing and gasping in horror at the same time.

The Spanish film The Motive is also advertised as a dark comedy, but the tone and slow pacing makes it more like a drama with some wickedly funny moments.  Alvaro dreams of being an author of great literature, as opposed to his best-selling writer wife Amanda, who he considers to be a hack that churns out low-brow fiction.  Unfortunately Alvaro has no talent for writing, despite taking multiple writing courses where his disdainful instructor advises him to live and experience more, then write about it.  Alvaro is overwhelmed with jealousy towards Amanda, and when he catches her cheating on him, it is the last straw.  He decides to quit his job, move out on his own into an apartment building and write his epic.  When no ideas come to him, Alvaro starts to manipulate his new neighbours into stressful situations that he can then use as plot material for his book.  For most of the movie, Alvaro comes across as a smug, selfish and amoral character that is difficult to root for.  But a twist ending forces you to at least admire his audacity and commitment to generating ideas for his craft, even at his own expense.  The Motive won the International Federation of Film Critics award for the Special Presentations Programme of the festival.

My husband Rich’s favourite movie of the festival was stand-up comic Louis C.K’s film I Love You Daddy about a wealthy and successful divorced TV screenwriter Glen, who has to deal with the challenges of protecting his strong-willed and spoiled 17-year-old daughter China, who he has constantly indulged and spoiled in the past.  China is able to wheedle and manipulate Glen into agreeing to outrageous requests like skipping school to take an extended spring break in Miami, and thanks him each time with the phrase “I love you, Daddy”, which starts off sounding sweet but eventually feels insidious.  Glen belatedly tries to exert some parental control when China, played by Chloe Grace Moretz, becomes infatuated with Leslie, a significantly older, even more successful movie screen writer who has a reputation of seducing young girls.  John Malkovich excels in the role of the slick, zen-like Leslie. This movie is both funny and sweet, with moments of biting social satire that may or may not be a reference to Woody Allen’s oeuvre, but may also make reference to Allen’s own reputation for dabbling with younger women/girls, something that Louis C.K. himself has also been accused of.  The most interesting part about the movie is the way it was made, in secret and privately funded with no input from studios or financiers.  Shot entirely in black and white on 35mm film with an old fashioned score that gives the main characters their own theme music, I Love You, Daddy is both a homage to the era of old-styled classic cinema, as well as an indictment against the Hollywood scene.

In Brad's Status, comedian Ben Stiller gives a surprisingly nuanced and sedate performance as happily married family man Brad, who works for a non-profit company and has a musician son Troy, who is interviewing for colleges.  Brad feels like an under-achiever when he compares himself to his university clique, who have all gone on to what Brad perceives as more successful, lucrative careers than him.  On a road trip with Troy to visit his colleges of choice, including Tuft University, where Brad went, and Harvard, which is Troy’s first choice, Brad comes to terms with his feelings of inadequacy and learns the typical clichéd lesson that success is measured by more than material wealth and that his friends' lives are not as great as he thought. There are no earthshaking revelations in this movie, which follows most of the usual tropes for its plot line.  Yet there were many touching moments and some funny ones where Brad imagines his wealthy friends jet-setting around the world or frolicking on the beach with nubile young women.

This year, I liked most of my selected comedies, which ranged from hilarious to mildly amusing, but were generally quite enjoyable.  The one exception was the Nigerian romantic comedy Royal Hibiscus Hotel, which I picked because I really liked the Nigerian romantic comedy from last year called The Wedding Party.  Unfortunately, whereas that movie was smart and funny, this one was unimaginative and derivative in plot, with boring dialogue, stiff acting and lack of chemistry between the romantic leads.  On top of this, I found the shrill, shrieky speech pattern of the mother to be extremely irritating.  I thought the same about the mothers in “The Wedding Party” but because the rest of the movie was so good, I didn’t mind as much as I did this time.  I think for next year, I might think twice about trying another Nigerian comedy.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

TIFF 2017 - Documentaries, Stories Based on Real Events

The documentary is not my favourite form of cinema because I find many of them to be about depressing topics and I don’t really like the interview style of information dissemination.  Surprisingly, this year there were multiple documentaries that interested me, dealing with a wide range of topics including investment fraud, celebrity sex secrets, corruption in the chicken industry and the Toronto Raptors basketball team.  We also watched a couple of movies that were neither biopics (which I previously wrote about) nor documentaries, but rather, fictional stories spun around real people and significant real-life events.

The China Hustle deals with the latest crisis to hit the US financial markets since the sub-prime mortgage fraud caused banks to fail in 2008.  The scam involves listing companies based in China on the New York Stock Exchange with falsified value, revenue, profit and growth projections in order to lure investors into purchasing overvalued stock.  To accomplish this, a Chinese company would take part in a “reverse merger”.  This involves finding a defunct American company (often a mining company) that is still listed on the stock exchange, merging with it and taking over its stock ticker.  A Chinese subsidiary of some big name auditing firm like Deloitte or Ernst and Young would then be paid (bribed?) to certify the new stock offering, giving it the air of legitimacy.  Since there are no Chinese laws governing improper financial dealings abroad, the Chinese companies can act with impunity.

Third-tier US banks and investment firms such as Roth Capital and Rodman & Renshaw jumped on what they thought was their new “golden goose”, pushing for their clients to buy these stocks, whose prices seemed to soar higher and higher.  It was not until Carson Block, an investor based in China, decided to visit Orient Paper Inc., a pulp and paper company which his family was invested in, that the truth came out.  Instead of a multi-million dollar company doing bustling business, Block found a decrepit building with 40 employees, 1 truck and a yard full of rotted wood.  Block published an analysis on his finding, but first “shorted” Orient Paper’s stock, betting that his revelations would cause the price to plummet, which it did.  Block made a bundle off this transaction, then started his company “Muddy Waters” to continue finding fraudulent Chinese companies, shorting their stock, then exposing them.

The documentary mainly focuses on Dan David, a Pennsylvania money manager who was initially also pushing these Chinese stocks.  Once he realized what was happening, he joined in shorting the stocks.  But unlike Block who was satisfied with just profiting from the situation, David has tried to raise awareness and get Congress to step in to protect the investors through legislation.  So far, David has been unsuccessful and none of the perpetrators of this fraud has been prosecuted or held responsible.  It was frustrating watching several of them be interviewed and smugly deny any wrong-doing.  It was also heartbreaking to watch the interviews of several small-time investors who have lost everything in these scams.  Mutual funds and pension funds were also fooled into investing, thus affecting even more people.  It seems incredible that after what the US went through in 2008, they would not have learned by now that there is no such thing as a “fast buck” and if something seems “too good to be true”, it usually is.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood follows around the now 90-year-old George Scotty Bowers, who acted as a “purveyor of sexual partners” for Hollywood celebrities from the 1940s-1980s.  In 2012, after decades of remaining silent about the secrets that he knew, Bower wrote a tell-all book called “Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars“, which revealed the sexual preferences and shenanigans of a bunch of high-profile stars and celebrities.  Scotty was a former marine who worked at a gas station after the World War II, where he met and had a sexual encounter with actor Walter Pidgeon.  This led to a new “party service” business for Bowers, who fulfilled any request for sexual encounters by the Hollywood jet-set, be it gay, lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, threesomes or orgies.  The sexual preferences of some of his clientele, such as Cary Grant or Rock Hudson, are common knowledge today.  But some revelations were a surprise to me, such as the true nature of the relationship between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who were never lovers and never lived together, since he was gay and she was a lesbian.  I was also surprised to learn of the bisexuality of Edward, the Duke of Windsor, and his paramour Wallace Simpson.  Scotty himself boasted of quite the bisexual sex life, including an infamous threesome with Ava Gardner and Lana Turner and many gay affairs.  His business ended in the mid 80s with the arrival of the AIDS epidemic and in 1984, Scotty settled down and married Lois, a former lounge singer who is with him to this day.
Supersize Me 2 – Holy Chicken is Morgan Spurlock’s follow-up to his 2004 exposé on the nutritional value (or lack-thereof) of MacDonalds menu items.  This time, he turned his attention to the chicken industry and chicken sandwiches in particular.  The gimmick this time would be Spurlock’s attempt to open a healthy chicken sandwich restaurant.  The problem is that no one really wants to eat a healthy (grilled) chicken sandwich, preferring the much tastier but less healthy deep-fried chicken sandwich.  So with tongue in cheek, the rest of the documentary is spent investigating ways to make his “crispy, never say fried” chicken burger joint appear to be healthier.  This included painting charcoal grill marks on the chicken and heaping vegetables on top of it, using green paint and wood décor in the restaurant to give a natural feel, and only using the "best" chickens.  To be able to say his chickens were “farm to fork”, he started his own chicken farm, which he called Morganic (play on Organic and Morgan) Fresh Farms.   Next came an indictment on the meaningless labels placed on poultry, including “organic”, “natural”, “no hormones”, and “free-range”, with no real standards being enforced for any of these terms.  Then he examined the modern chicken breeding practices which result in chickens so big that their legs cannot support their weight and cause heart attacks. This is followed by a segment that compared the “Big Chicken” industry to mob bosses who used immoral tactics to keep chicken farmers indentured to them.  The finale features the grand opening of the Holy Chicken restaurant, which Spurlock uses as a means of trying to educate the public on truths about the chicken industry.

When basketball first expanded into Canada in 1995, Toronto was still primarily a hockey city.  Attendees to the early Toronto Raptors games did not really understand the ins and outs of basketball and the rest of the American teams in the NBA all thought of Toronto not just as a foreign country, but almost as if it were some alien planet.  Much of this changed when the Raptors acquired Vince Carter in 1998, and his impact in creating interest in basketball within Toronto, and interest in Toronto from the rest of the league is explored in the documentary The Carter Effect, produced by Toronto superstar rapper Drake and NBA superstar Lebron James.  Vince Carter was a superstar in the making, with powerful and innovative dunk shots that excited fans, teammates and opponents alike.  Carter’s addition to the team helped the Raptors reach the playoffs for the first time in the 1999-2000 season, and to repeat the trip in 2001 and 2002.  During this period, the Raptors set league-wide attendance records and the term “Vinsanity” was coined to describe the hype surrounding Vince Carter.  Suddenly Toronto seemed like a basketball town and other NBA teams started to take notice.

Carter’s tour with the Raptors ended on a sour note when several years of poor performances by the team, resulting in missing the playoffs, and Vince’s chronic injuries led to his being traded to the New Jersey Nets in 2004.  Fans did not take this well, with rumours abound that Carter had demanded a trade and abandoned the city that loved him.  For years, the fans booed Carter mercilessly every time he returned to play in Toronto.  In the documentary, Vince claimed that he never wanted to be traded but was forced out by a change in management.  Eventually the fans forgave Carter and gave him credit for all that he had done for the city.  In 2014 while celebrating the Raptors 20th anniversary, a tribute reel featured Vince’s accomplishments and the fans responded with a standing ovation.  I watched the game that day, and like Vince Carter, I had tears in my eyes when this happened.  The Carter Effect allowed Raptors fans to relive all these memories.

The two movies we watched that spun fictional stories around real life events were coincidentally both related to historic situations that occurred in the former Soviet Union or USSR.  Sergio and Sergei is a sweet tale of friendship that blossoms in spite of different ethnicities, cultures and religions and in the face of oppression, political and economic strife.  Sergio is a Cuban university professor and amateur ham radio operator, trying to support his young daughter and his elderly mother.  It is 1992 and the Soviet Union had just collapsed, leaving Russia and its major ally Cuba in financial straits.  Sergio receives a new ham radio from his American friend Peter, who has ties to NASA.  This causes the Cuban secret police to regard Sergio with suspicion and to monitor his transmissions.  One day, Sergio makes contact with Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev who is on a tour of duty on the space shuttle Mir, awaiting approval to return home.  As time passes, it becomes clear that Russia is stalling regarding sending Sergei home because they don’t have the funds to do so.  Sergio tries to enlist Peter to get aid from NASA to help Sergei.  This is a delightful and touching movie that does not totally shy away from the hardships faced by Cuba and Russia during this period, but in general keeps the tone light and comical.  While the fall of USSR and the plight of Krikalev are based on real events, as is the astronaut’s contact from space with ham radio operators around the world, the interactions with Sergio and Peter are fictional.  The movie lost me a bit at the end when it injected minor elements of fantasy to make the story more fairy-tale-like, which I thought was unnecessary.  Otherwise I really enjoyed this movie.

The Death of Stalin is a hilarious satire and black comedy that describes the days leading up to and the aftermath following the demise of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953.  The cruel and sadistic General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was feared by his people and his Council of Ministers alike.  Stalin ordered the arrest, incarceration or execution of perceived enemies at a whim.  These orders were carried out by his secret police, the NKVD.  Somehow this movie made you laugh, despite depicting what should be horrific acts including torture and executions, although I must admit that I felt a twinge of guilt for being amused.  Most of the humour comes from the frantic and inane interactions and infighting between Stalin’s inner circle including Malenkov, Molotov, Beria and Khrushev, as they “kissed ass” while he was alive and then turned on him and each other after his death.  The movie is all the more funny because all the Russian roles are played by American and British actors including Steve Buscemi, Jeffery Tambor and Michael Palin, speaking English in their native accents.  What made this movie so amazing was how historically accurate the depicted events were, despite the buffoonery and exaggerated situations that were played for laughs.  As an example, according to Wikipedia, Stalin was found unconscious in his bedroom, having urinated in his collapse and was subsequently moved to a couch.  All these points were faithfully depicted in the movie, but the hilarity that ensued when the bumbling ministers tried to lift Stalin while not stepping on his urine brought roars of laughter from the audience.  This was such a fun movie to watch, while also being educational.