Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Theatre Highlights and Lowlights in 2019

I continue to marvel at the vast amount and variety of theatre that we have available to us in Toronto. While we don't really have concentrated theatre districts in the city that match New York's Broadway and Off-Broadway or the West End in London, we can certainly claim a large number of independent theatres scattered throughout our city.  The options grow even more nurmeous if you include surrounding areas in Ontario including Stratford, Niagara on the Lake and little community theatres in small towns.  Each year we end up watching about 20-30 plays, anchored by our annual subscription to Mirvish Productions which includes 6-7 shows per season with an emphasis on musicals,( which I love!).  In the past, I've blogged about many of the shows shortly after we watched them.  I was remiss this year and so this will be one big blog with a few quick thoughts about some of the more memorable shows that we watched this year, for better and for worse...

One of our first shows of the year was called Foreign Tongue, a curated performance that was part of the annual Next Stage Fringe Festival, which provides a platform for emerging theatre artists to present their works.  Foreign Tongue is a whimsical romantic musical set in Toronto that deals with multiculturalism and acceptance.  Kathy Woodrough, a yuppie from Peterborough gets knocked on the head and wakes up speaking with a thick European accent (an affliction known as Foreign Language Syndrome).  Confused, disoriented and no longer able to pronounce her own last name, Kathy reinvents herself as "Ludmilla", joins an English as a Second Language (ESL) class where she bonds with the other immigrants and starts a romance with a man who is attracted to women with foreign accents.  For a semi-pro production, this show was quite strong in terms of clever songs and story-line and excellent acting and singing performances.  We look forward to this theatre festival each year since there are often some very entertaining and unexpected gems that you can watch for less than $20 per show.

We expected great things from our first Mirvish show of 2019, the comedy "The Play That Goes Wrong" which enjoyed a lengthy and successful run in London and received rave reviews.  We were additionally encouraged since during our vacation in London the previous year, we saw another play called "The Comedy About A Bank Robbery" by the same acting troupe and absolutely loved it.  That comedy was hilarious but also witty with a great farcical plot delivered with impeccable timing by the accomplished performers.  Unfortunately "The Play That Goes Wrong" did not measure up in any respect.  As the title implies, the show deals with a group of actors putting on an extremely low budget play where everything that can go wrong, does so.  But rather than clever farce, the plot was banal and the humour involved the lowest form of slapstick that failed to be funny after the same pratfalls and crumbling set sequences were repeated endlessly.  A good comedy starts slowly and gradually adds to the insanity until all hell breaks loose at the climax.  This play went full throttle right from the start, then could not sustain the pace since there was nowhere else for it to progress to.

 ** Photos by David Cooper
By comparison, Ladykillers, which we watched at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake) in June had much more interesting characters, dialogue and a clever plot based on the classic 1955 crime comedy starring Alec Guiness and Peter Sellers.  A group of hapless bank robbers who are preparing for a heist, rent a room from a seemingly sweet little old lady, Mrs.Wilberforce, while pretending to be classical musicians.  Problems ensue when their intrepid landlady gleans the truth of the situation and the robbers agonize over how to deal with her.  I particularly liked the staging and set of the production, which showed a cross section of Mrs Wilberforce's two-storied home so that we could see the activities of the criminals in their second-floor room at the same time as the puttering of the old lady downstairs, as well as watch their reactions each time she comes up the stairs towards them.  The set then spins around to show to exterior of the house, where more shenanigans take place.  While the timing of the physical comedy was not perfect, this was still an extremely entertaining show to watch. We saw this at the beginning of its run, so perhaps the timing would have been better later in the season.

While on a short vacation to Pelee Island, we stopped overnight at Port Stanley to watch Lunenburg by Canadian playwright Norm Foster.  Recently widowed Iris has arrived in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia to inspect the cottage that she inherited from her late husband following his sudden accidental death.  With her friend Natalie along for moral support, Iris meets next-door neighbour Charlie and slowly learns that she did not know her husband as well as she thought she did.  The entire story plays out on the porch of the cottage as the various characters interact in this touching yet humorous three-hander.  We have watched many other plays by Norm Foster and this one is by far his best and most poignant.

Lately, Mirvish Productions has done a great job of bringing the most recently acclaimed shows from Broadway or the West End.  The final shows in the 2018/2019 season included Dear Evan Hanson which won the Tony Award for best musical in 2017 and Waitress which was nominated for the award in 2016. Evan Hanson is an awkward, lonely teenager with a crush on his classmate Zoe.  After the school bully Connor ( Zoe's brother) commits suicide, Evan pretends that he was best friends with  Connor in order to maintain a relationship with Zoe and the dead boy's family.  To support the charade, Evan creates fake email correspondence between himself and Connor.

The musical Waitress, with music and lyrics written by singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles, is based on the 2007 film of the same name starring Keri Russell.  Jenna is the titular waitress who wants to leave her unhappy marriage when she finds out that she is pregnant after a drunken encounter with her abusive husband.  Jenna finds solace in the pies that she bakes at the diner that she works for.  As a clever tie-in to the musical, small jars of fruit pie were sold before the start of Waitress.  Both Dear Evan Hanson and Waitress were good shows but I wasn't sure either was worth all the hype.  I found the songs to be rather bland and not very memorable with the exception of the big number from each show"You Will Be Found" and "She Used to Be Mine" respectively.

I enjoyed the lesser known musicals The Last Ship and Jukebox Hero better, perhaps because I went in with lower expectations than I had for the more highly touted shows. Last Ship is an original musical with music and lyrics written by Sting, whose own childhood experiences in the shipbuilding town of Wallsend, England inspired the story.  It deals with a community of generational shipbuilders who learn that the shipyard which provides the main source of the town's employment will soon be shut down. After some fruitless protests, in a final act of defiance the workers decide that they will build one last ship to sail down the River Tyne.  The songs range from haunting and melancholy to spirited and inspiring and it was an extra thrill to have Sting himself play one of the lead roles.

Even though I don't usually like jukebox musicals, I went to see JukeBox Hero, based on the songs of the 70s rock band Foreigner since I love so many of the songs by this group.  As expected with the jukebox musical genre, the plot is a bit clunky in order to force-fit Foreigner's hit songs into it.  At least it did not fall upon the hackneyed trope of the "dystopian world" as Bat Out of Hell and We Will Rock You did.  Ryan and Mace are two brothers who are part of a band playing in dive bars along with Mace's girlfriend Linda. In the beginning, the lyrics of a few songs actually seemed to advance the story until it all fell apart and songs started to be sung just for the heck of it. After a heated argument between Mace and Linda (Head Games, Say You Will, Say You Won't), Mace catches Ryan and Linda in an impromptu kiss (Feels Like the First Time) and the band breaks up (Break It Up).  Mace joins the army (At War With the World) and Ryan heading off to musical stardom as a solo act. The closing of the steel mill (doesn't this sound like The Last ship!?!) lures Ryan back to give a charity performance for the beleaguered town, giving the brothers a chance to reconcile.  Despite a convoluted plot, it was great fun hearing all my favourite songs, played with high energy and serious guitar licks.  All it took was the strumming of "one guitar" from the titular Jukebox Hero to get the crowd rocking.

One of the most intellectually stimulating and exciting shows that we watched in 2019 was the political thriller Oslo, offered as an "Off-Mirvish" production (emulating Off-Broadway).  The play hypothesizes what was discussed during secret negotiations held in and facilitated by Norway that led to the historic 1993 Oslo Accords, an attempt at a peace treaty between Israel and Palestine.  The simple use of tension-filled dialogue conveyed the high stakes of the talks, both personally for the negotiators and politically for their respective nations.  There were no guns, overt violence or even a soaring emotion-inducing score to ramp up the pressure and yet you were at the edge of your seat throughout the entire show.  This was a fascinating play that presented what was a brief glimmer of hope for these war-torn enemies, before it all fell apart by the actions of radical factions that could not condone compromise.  The main part of the play ended triumphantly with the signing of the treaty by Israeli President Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat on the lawn of the White House.  Unfortunately the denouement lined up all the characters on stage where each described what happened to them next including the assassination of Rabin by an Israeli settler.

The 2019/2020 Mirvish season started with two musicals that I did not enjoy very much.  The Band's Visit won the Tony award for best musical in 2018 while The Girl From North Country was a highly acclaimed show from London's West End that made a brief stop Off-Broadway before coming to Toronto.  The Band's Visit is based on the 2007 movie of the same name, which deals with an Egyptian police band who travel to Israel to play a concert, only to accidentally end up in the wrong town.  Stuck until morning in the tiny remote village of Beit Hatikva, the band members bond with the villagers, bringing a little excitement to their monotonous existences.  The movie is slow, quiet and melancholic in tone with not much action or even dialogue.  Unfortunately, even with the addition of songs and a few dances, the musical comes across in the same way.  While the music was culturally interesting and appropriate for the plot, there was not enough to keep my interest for the entire show.  The one song that I really liked from this musical repeated the words "Umm Kulthum and Omar Sharif".  Although I recognized the name of actor Omar Sharif, I did not realize that Umm Kulthum was a famous Egyptian singer and actress active from the 1920s to 1970s.

I did not expect to like The Girl From North Country and I was right.  The show is a jukebox musical based on the songs of Bob Dylan (which I don't know that well and don't really like to begin with).  But unlike other musicals of this genre, Girl From North Country takes pride in choosing songs that don't advance the plot at all, but rather "sets the mood" for what is happening on stage.  This goes against everything that I enjoy about a good musical and it did not work for me.  This was a sombre, overly long, morose play set in a rundown guesthouse in Minnesota during the Great Depression.  The people who interact with one another all have their problems, and then suddenly break into a Dylan song for no apparent reason.  The only character whose song reflects his situation is Joe, the black boxer on the run from the law who sings "Hurricane", which Dylan wrote about wrongfully convicted boxer Rubin Carter.  This was the only song in the show that I could relate to and yet the playwright ruefully suggested that it was "a bit on the nose".  Obviously we do not share the same opinion as to what makes a true musical.

I thought I would feel the same antipathy about Piaf/Dietrich, a biographical play detailing the tumultuous friendship between two powerhouse performers--Edith Piaf (nicknamed Sparrow) and Marlene Dietrich (The Angel).  Yet I ended up being won over by the amazing acting and singing performances of the two main stars.  Jayne Lewis portrays the German ice queen while Canadian legend Louise Pitre took on the role of the manic, emotionally-overwrought French singer.  Pitre in particular shone in her role as Piaf and sang all of her songs in French including the signature tunes La Vie En Rose and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.  Throughout the show, Piaf and Dietrich alternated in giving performances on a cabaret-styled stage with the respective singer's name lit up in giant lights.  To accentuate the feel of a floor show, the people in the first few rows of the orchestra section were seated at lamp-lit tables (with drinks!) while a few members of the audience were seated at elevated tables on either side of the stage.  While it would momentarily be a thrill to be situated so close to the actors, I'm not sure that I would like this since for the most part, you are looking at the back of their heads.

We like watching the occasional show at the Lower Ossington Theatre since its repertoire often includes smaller, more obscure musicals including ones that I have not seen elsewhere.  This season we watched 9 to 5 The Musical, the 2008 musical based on the 1980 comedic film starring Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda.  Violet, Loralee and new hire Judy are three harassed office workers who turn the tables on their sexist, lecherous boss in what has turned out to be a harbinger of the "Me Too" movement. For a relatively small theatre company, most shows offered at Lower Ossington are surprisingly high in quality and this one was no exception.  9 to 5 the Musical featured excellent production values including strong performances by the three leads, snappy choreography (especially in the opening number that featured the titular song 9 to 5) and great costumes and wigs which made the three leads look almost identical to their movie counterparts when viewed from the back.

In 2019, we discovered the Crow's Theatre in the East end of Toronto which has two performance spacesthe larger Guloien Theatre and the smaller, more intimate Scotia Community Studio.  There we watched two of the most unique and challenging plays of the seasonThe Flick and Ghost Quartet.  Each show demanded your attention in a different way and stretched your preconceived notions of what to expect from a play.

It is totally disorientating when you first enter the Guloien Theatre to watch The Flick since there is stadium seating located on both sides of the floor.  For a moment, it is not clear which side is part of the stage and which are the seats for the audience. The Flick is set inside the last non-digital movie theatre where underpaid movie ushers (Sam and Avery) and the movie projectionist (Rose) subsist in their dead-end, monotonous jobs which match their equally boring lives.  To emphasize this monotony, the 3.5 hour long show spends many many minutes showing Sam and Avery slowly, methodically and SILENTLY sweeping up popcorn from the aisles.  Somehow rather than being sleep-inducing, this robotic repetition was fascinating to watch.  In between scenes where the three characters interact with one other and we learn more about their lives and dreams, the stage fades to black.  The next scene starts up as if a new movie is being screened, as from the darkness we see the beam of light from the projection room and hear the opening credit music (e.g. the lion roar from an MGM movie).  It is set up so that the audience becomes the defacto location of the movie screen and often the characters sit in their stadium seats looking out at us.  Also, when the lights come back on, you see that the stage is once again strewn with popcorn.  We find out at the end of the play that there is a machine set up at the back to spit out popcorn.  The movie analogy continues with the "program" which, instead of a booklet,  is in the format of a paper movie listing calendar like the ones found at Hot Docs.  As well, the advertisement for the play in the windows of Crow's Theatre look like movie posters.  You need to go into this play with the understanding and acceptance of what the playwright is going for, but once you do, this is a superb experience that immerses you into the drab lives of the characters.  Luckily you get to go back to your own (and hopefully) much better lives at the end of this.

Ghost Quartet, which we watched in the smaller Scotia Community Studio, had its own unique staging and was cerebral, weird and disorienting in its own way.  We walked into a darkened, smoke-filled room and had to squint to see that there was stadium seating on both ends with a set in the middle consisting of a piano, drum set and various weird musical instruments.  Four performers appeared and proceeded to tell us an elaborate, eerie ghost story through spoken dialogue and haunting tunes.  But we were warned near the start that this was a "circular story" that jumped back and forth between time and space as each performer played multiple roles, switching on a dime with no warning.  This made it difficult to follow the plot, but after a while, you stopped caring and just gave in to enjoying the beautiful songs and spooky atmosphere.  It would have helped to read a synopsis like the one found on Wikipedia ahead of time.  I would have learned that this was a tale of two sisters who loved the same man, an astronomer in a treehouse (?!? just go with it...).  Wanting revenge, the spurned sister is sent on a quest by an evil bear to gather four items, leading to four intervening fairy tales that reference characters from Arabian Nights and Edgar Allen Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher.  Not understanding most of this as I was watching the show, I still appreciated it but left the theatre wondering "What just happened?".

One of the stand-out shows that we watched in 2019 was not actually live theatre, but the filming of a live National Theatre production of The Lehman Trilogy, which we watched on a movie screen at Cineplex Theatres.  Three superb actors play multiple roles in telling the history of the global financial services and investment banking firm Lehman Brothers Holding Company before it went bankrupt during the financial crises of 2008.  Dressed in long black trench coats, they portrayed the original Jewish brothers Henry, Emanuel and Mayer Lehman who emigrated to America from Germany between 1840-50 and started a small business which eventually grew into the international empire.  Along the way, they invented the business concept of the "middle man".  Remaining on stage for the entire show and dressed in the same wardrobe, in addition to the three brothers, these amazing actors also portrayed their girlfriends, wives, children and grandchildren as well as other minor roles.

The set and staging was quite unusual as the action took place within a spinning glass cube on which the actors used markers to write dates and statistics to mark the passage of time and the growth of the company.  There was very minimal furniture on the set other than a boardroom table, a few chairs and a some cardboard boxes which were stacked in different configurations to form platforms, walls, towers, inventory and more.  The boxes take on a final poignancy when they become the containers carried out by workers who lost their jobs after the bankruptcy.

Including the three musicals that we watched on Broadway when we visited Manhattan in December, we saw many great shows in 2019 and already have several lined up for 2020. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

TIFF 2019 - Day 7-9

Bad Education is based on an actual school embezzlement scandal that broke in the mid 2000s. For years, School Superintendent Frank Tassone and his assistant Pam Gluckin had been defrauding the Roslyn High School in Long Island New York. By over-billing for school expenses and pocketing the difference, billing large personal expenses under ambiguous categories, and billing to fake companies (one owned by Tassone’s romantic partner), the pair bilked the school system for over $10 million dollars. As their scam starts to unravel, after throwing Gluckin under the bus to save himself, Tassone tries to deflect from his own culpability using charm, self-righteous justifications and finally intimidation. Tassone’s personal life also comes to light as it is revealed that as opposed to being the long-grieving widow with a (fake) photo of his young bride sitting on his desk, he is a closeted gay man with a long-term partner in New York and a younger exotic dancer lover on the side. The movie also questions the accountability of the school board trustees, who was more interested in protecting their soaring property values associated with being near a prestigious school, and that of the parents who are solely concerned with getting their kids into desired colleges.

It was interesting watching an aging Hugh Jackman start to take anti-hero or villainous roles, after a long career of mostly playing the good guy. I felt the same way about romantic comedy staple Hugh Grant who recently played the lead in A Very English Scandal. While they both flash their trademark charismatic smiles in these roles, there is a hardness in their eyes that belies the outward persona each tries to portray.

The Perfect Candidate is a movie from Saudi Arabia that deals with Maryam, a female doctor at a local clinic accessed by a mud path, who advocates for a  paved road instead. After inadvertently signing up to run for election on a local council, she realizes that winning the position might give her the power to implement changes to help her community including the construction of the road for the clinic. Fully committing to the campaign, Maryam faces opposition from both men and women in her village, who don’t approve of women taking leadership roles.  It was disturbing to see the limitations faced by women in this part of the world, including the need to cover their heads or faces in public, and the requirement for a male guardian to give permission for them to travel abroad.  But Maryam's spunk and determination in pushing forward her campaign, and the minor victories that she wins in changing a few minds about her candidacy, give a glimmer of hope for the future.

Using a style similar to the movie “The Big Short”, Laundromat attempts to explain the financial shenanigans exposed in 2016 by the Panama Papers, a massive anonymous leak of financial documents that revealed the widespread use of tax havens and off-shore shell companies as means for tax avoidance, as well as illegal activities such as money laundering, bribery, insurance fraud and more. Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman play the duo roles of the narrators of the film, as well as Mossack and Fonseco, the head lawyers of the firm whose documents were leaked. Breaking the fourth wall as narrators, they speak directly to the camera (and the audience) explaining the concepts of money, credit, taxes and the difference between tax evasion versus tax avoidance. They also introduce a series of fictional examples of what the Panama papers unveiled, including a framing story involving Meryl Streep playing a grieving widow who tries to get a just settlement for a boating accident that killed her husband, only to find out that the insurers for this did not actually exist. For me the movie did not do a good job of explaining the complex situations disclosed by the Panama papers and the use of Streep’s story felt gimmicky. I would have been more interested in a depiction of how 350 reporters from 80 countries secretly spent over a year to investigate the validity of the leak.

How to Build a Girl is a British coming-of-age story with a twist about Johanna, an awkward, imaginative 16-year-old aspiring writer from a blue-collared working class family who carries on conversations with the images pinned to her bedroom wall, including Karl Marx, the Bronte sisters, Sylvia Platt, Cleopatra and Maria from the Sound of Music. After landing a writing gig as a rock music critic, Johanna develops a funky new look and adopts the persona of “Dolly Wilde” as her pen-name. Realizing that she would be more successful in her reviews if they were viciously snarky as opposed to gushingly fan-girly, Johanna morphs from a shy, good-natured teetotaling virgin into a hedonistic sexualized party girl who skewers musical acts with her scathing write-ups.

Beanie Feldstein (who also stars in Booksmart) is great in this role, with an infectious smile that beams ear to ear and some great repartee that she delivers with sass and attitude. Even when she is acting bitchy and alienates her friends and family, she still exudes a vulnerability that makes you continue to pull for her character in her journey of self-discovery. 

The Personal History of David Copperfield tells the story of Charles Dickens’ 1850 masterpiece novel, using framing scenes at the beginning and end of the film which depict the grown-up Copperfield reading from his successfully published memoirs. With a few minor changes to the novel’s plot, the luxuriously shot movie depicts most of the quirky characters while capturing the time period, costumes and setting as described in the book. The one major exception is the prevalence of colour-blind casting. The titular character is played by Dev Patel of Hindu descent while David’s mother is white. Similarly, the lawyer Mr Wickfield is played by Chinese actor Benedict Wong while his daughter Agnes is played by black actress Rosalind Eleazar. The most interesting example casts the black actress Nikki Amuka-Bird as the wealthy and extremely snobbish aristocratic mother of David’s classmate James Steerforth, who is played by a white actor. At least there was continuity within a character, as a small Indian boy was cast as the feisty younger version of Patel's Copperfield.

Clifton Hill is a Canadian modern-day gothic thriller about a troubled young woman named Abby who is a pathological liar, possibly triggered by a traumatic event from her childhood growing up in Clifton Hill, Niagara Falls. While out with her family as a little girl, she spotted an injured boy with a bandage over his eye and watched in the shadows as he was captured and thrown into the trunk of his assailants’ car. Unable to get anyone to believe her about the incident when it happened, old memories are dredged up when she returns to her hometown to handle the sale of the family motel after the death of her mother. Abby becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to the “one-eyed boy”, to the chagrin of her younger sister Laura, their family lawyer, and the police who believe she is lying for attention. Set in the quiet off-season for the area and filmed mostly at night, Clifton Hill comes across as gloomy, seedy and a bit sinister. Director David Cronenberg has a small role as a conspiracy theorist in this moody mystery that concludes with a surprise ending that will spur a lengthy discussion as to its meaning.

Abominable is an adorable animated co-production between Dreamworks (who created the Shrek and How to Train a Dragon series) and China’s Pearl Studio that is set in Shanghai and features a trio of Chinese youths as the main protagonists.  We are introduced to teenager Yi who is mourning the death of her father and seeks solitude in a rooftop refuge, where she discovers that a baby Yeti (abominable snowman) is also hiding.  With the help of her cousins Peng and Jin, Yi attempts to return the Yeti, who she names “Everest” back to his home in the Himalayas, while evading the ruthless group that is trying to recapture him.  The long trek from Shanghai to Mount Everest is aided by the magical powers of the Yeti and along the way, Yi learns to come to terms with the loss of her father.  The animation is beautifully drawn, depicting remote parts of China including lush countryside and mystical mountaintops while the haunting music that Yi plays on her father’s violin is distinctly Chinese.  It was interesting to compare the look, feel and sound of this American-Chinese co-production which differed from the Japanese animated movies that have their own separate style.

Burnt Orange Heresy is a dark suspense thriller about secrets, lies and fraud in the art world, exploring what determines or drives the value of art.  We are first introduced to the morally questionable art critic James Figueras, as he gives a lecture on the importance of a good backstory to the deemed value of a piece.  Figueras meets the beautiful but mysterious Bernice and brings her along when he is invited to the Italian villa of an unscrupulous art collector/dealer Joseph Cassidy, played with a flair and a  touch of menace by Mick Jagger.  Cassidy blackmails Figueras into obtaining a painting from the acclaimed but reclusive painter Jerome Debney, at any cost and by any means.  Despite the gorgeous setting in Lake Como, Italy, there is a sense of foreboding that lingers through much of the movie, as it courses towards its unsettling conclusion.

On our last day at the festival, we unexpectedly were offered free tickets to the Gala public screening of The Sky is Pink at Roy Thompson Hall.  Based on a true story, the movie follows the 25-year marriage of an Indian couple who give birth to a baby girl with a severe immune disorder and their struggles to keep her alive and living life to the fullest, up until her eventual death at age 18.  I was intrigued that despite the seemingly somber premise, the movie was described as uplifting and even funny at times.  This was accomplished by having the tale be narrated in flashback scenes by the cheerful, irreverent voice of the deceased daughter Aisha, who nicknames her mother “Moose”, her father “Panda” and her big brother “Giraffe”.  The movie shows that despite the hardships faced by the family, they persevered with love, understanding and even humour.  Once it became clear that Aisha was terminal, Moose (played with fierce but loving determination by actress Priyanka Chopra) made it her mission to ensure Aisha experienced all that life could offer, including owning a dog, going snorkeling, and having a boyfriend.  A central theme of the movie is to “live life on your own terms”, which was emphasized in an early scene when young Giraffe cried to his mother that his teacher chastised him for painting the sky pink instead of blue.   Moose firmly replied “You must never let anyone else tell you how you should see the colour of the sky”.  This turned out to be a very touching movie that celebrated life as opposed to dwelling on death.  It was nice to see the director and stars of the movie, but I still don’t understand why there is rarely a post movie Q&A at Roy Thompson Hall.  Just like the last time we watched a Gala presentation there, all we got was a wave from the balcony as we filed out of the theatre.

I thought the quality of movies was especially good this year and we saw many stellar films made by countries from around the world.  Many of them shared the common theme of class distinction or class wars between the wealthy and the poor.  These included Parasite, Three Summers, Lina from Lima, Heroic Losers, Greed, David Copperfield, and Laundromat.  A common motif was the use of rain to set the mood in a film.  For the first few days of movie-watching, it seemed like every movie included a heavy rainstorm.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

TIFF 2019 - Day 4-6

Coming Home Again is a Korean drama about Yale graduate Chang-rae Lee who quits his good-paying job in New York and returns home to San Francisco to care for his mother who is dying from stomach cancer. Switching between present day and flashback memories, we see how the pair bonded over food and cooking. There were many close-up, hunger-inducing scenes of classic Korean dishes being lovingly prepared by the son, as he was taught to do in flashback scenes with the mother. The offering of food was seen as an expression of love. It is interesting that the movie is told from the perspective of the caregiver as opposed to the patient and I was surprised at the level of medical home care that he provided, including refilling his mother's IV bag. Because of the Women in Films documentary that I watched the previous day, I noticed filming techniques used in this movie including staging, lighting, depicting memories and what is left out. Many scenes of the family interacting with the bed-ridden mother are shot from the adjoining room, looking through a window. This includes a critical scene between the mother and Chang-rae’s sister, where you cannot hear what is said, but the meaning is unmistakable. In another climatic scene set at the dining table, an argument erupts around the mother but the camera stays focused on her expressive face. The performances by the two leads are excellent and heartbreaking.

Greed is a biting political satire filmed in part like a mockumentary that ends up being a scathing Indictment against the fashion trade, which profits from the exploitation of poor female workers in third world countries. Steve Coogan plays the wealthy, unscrupulous discount fashion retailer tycoon Richard “Greedy” McCreadie, who ironically coined this nickname for himself as an ambitious young man who would do anything to reach the top. For the occasion of his 60th birthday, McCreadie has organized an obscenely lavish birthday party on the Greek island of Mykonos, where Syrian refugees have “inconveniently camped on HIS beach”. The toga party themed bash, complete with a replica being built of the Colosseum, a gladiator, and a trained lion, is to be documented by McCreadie's biographer Nick as well as being filmed as a TV reality show. Scenes jump between the preparations for and attendance at the party, and flashbacks of McCreadie’s youth, rise from rags to riches, and a business ethics board that grills him about his unsavoury practices. What starts off as a hilariously ridiculous farce ends up with a serious message that is delivered with a sledgehammer.  I don't usually find Steve Coogan's comedies to be funny, but I really liked him in this one.  I just wish they had been a bit more subtle with the message being conveyed and the end.

Although marketed as musical comedy, I found Lina From Lima to be a slow and depressing drama that occasionally and inexplicably breaks into song and dance, without the musical interludes actually advancing or enhancing the plot. Hailing from Peru, Lina works as a migrant worker in Chile for a wealthy couple, taking care of their daughter Clara as well as overseeing the construction of a swimming pool in their new home. Lina struggles to maintain a long distance relationship with her teen-aged son Junior who she left behind with her ex-husband. On the other hand, Clara has bonded with Lina but craves a closer relationship with her absent father. Lina tries to fill the void in her lonely life with Tinder hookups with different men. Her planned trip home for Christmas is derailed when her negligence causes a mishap to the pool and she needs to find a solution to fix it. Again, cultural differences may have prevented me from finding anything funny in her situation and the injection of random songs did not help.  I find it difficult to relate to musicals sung in foreign languages because the effort to translate the lyrics detaches the words from the music and detracts from the impact of the songs.

We walked into Jojo Rabbit with a bit of trepidation, not knowing what to expect based on the film’s strange premise. Jojo is a precocious but socially awkward German youth with blue eyes, blond hair and a cherubic face, who is fanatically obsessed with Adolph Hitler. With his father away “at war”, Jojo conjures up an imaginary version of the Fuhrer who acts as his friend, confidante, and conduit for interpreting all the anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda that he has been taught. The movie starts out as hilarious satire as Jojo attends his Nazi youth training camp, although it takes a few minutes of unease at the sight of all the swastikas before you feel like its OK to laugh. Eventually the film becomes poignant and heartfelt once Jojo discovers the secret that his free-spirited mother has been keeping, which in turn causes him to reevaluate his beliefs and party indoctrination. I have watched many excellent movies at TIFF this year, but most of them followed standard, accepted formulas. From the standpoint of originality, entertainment value and sheer audaciousness, this movie could well turn out to be my favourite of the festival.

I usually don’t like Adam Sandler movies so I wasn’t sure about his crime movie Uncut Gems, about a gambling jeweler trying to get out of debt by auctioning off a stone containing precious gems.  Basketball star Kevin Garnett and pop singer The Weeknd play versions of themselves in roles that advance the plot. It did not help to read a write-up that described the film as loud and frenetic. The review was “bang on”, pun intended.  Even worse, I felt total antipathy and disdain for Adam Sandler’s character and all the yelling and swearing gave me a headache.  So I cut my losses after 75 minutes of the 135 minute film and walked out with enough time to queue up for the another movie.  I guess I still don’t like most Adam Sandler movies.

Red Penguin is an interesting documentary about a consortium of investors including the owners of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team who decided in invest in 50% of the Russian Red Army hockey team in the early 1990s.  This was shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union when many of the Russian hockey superstars left to join the more lucrative National Hockey League, leaving the talent and interest in Russian hockey in tatters.  Diminutive sales and promotion dynamo Steve Warshaw was sent to Moscow to turn things around for the team which was rebranded as the  “Red Penguins” complete with a new logo and merchandising.  Steve brought showmanship to the games to drive up attendance, offering promotions including free beer, strippers at half time, trained bears, a Boris Yeltsin look-alike contest and more.  Unfortunately this was also a time of corruption and rise of the Russian mafia so things started to turn dangerous as the team’s success grew.

Last Porno Show is a quirky Canadian drama about aspiring method-actor Wayne who tries to work through his unresolved feelings about his deceased estranged father Al, after inheriting Al’s beloved but seedy, run-down porno theatre. The film does not shy away from explicit porno images or full-frontal nudity for both the male and female characters.  It flips between scenes in the present of Wayne trying to embrace the porn film culture to get into character for a salacious role and his memories of being a boy growing up in the environment of the porn theatre. These memories show how Wayne was often traumatized by the situations that Al left him in but also reveal glimpses of how much his father loved him. A central theme to the movie, which was surprisingly poignant given its subject matter, is whether you “want to be a person who is happy or one who makes others happy”. By the end of the movie, Wayne comes to realize which one his father was. Although mostly a sombre film, there was a funny scene involving a TV set, and I loved the credits at the end with one role described as “cinema masturbator”.  How would you like that on your resume?

Saturday, September 07, 2019

TIFF 2019 - Day 1-3

My husband Rich and I watched 13 advanced screening movies prior to the official start of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, so it was a good thing that we had a week's rest in between since we tentatively planned almost 30 more to go during the actual festival, although we usually drop some towards the end as we become too tired.  On the first day, we had four movies scheduled with at most 30 minutes in between each one.  To prepare, we loaded up with coffee and packed a lunch.  Since we would be sitting for most of the day, we made a pact to walk up and down every set of stairs that we encountered including the ones at our condo, the subway and the 75 steps leading up to the Scotia Paramount theatres where we would spend most of our time.

Our first movie was American Son, based on an award-winning play Broadway play of the same name with its lead Kerry Washington (of TV series Scandal fame) reprising her role.  Kendra, a well-educated black woman is at the police station in the wee hours, concerned that her 18-year-old son has not returned home.  She was told that the car her son was driving was involved in an "incident" but gets nowhere in trying to find out more details. As she becomes more and more frantic, Kendra experiences and gets into debates about racism from the white junior officer who interviews her, her estranged white husband Scott, and even the senior liaison officer who is black.  The plot deviates from the standard trope of the poor black kid from the ghettos, dealing instead with a mixed child in a well-to-do family with a mother who has a PhD in psychology and an FBI father.  This brings up issues of class and identity in addition to that of race.  The dialogue, probably taken word for word from the play, is powerful and scintillating.  Given that the film takes place almost exclusively within the waiting room of the police station, it feels more like you are watching a play.  The only things the movie adds are the atmospheric presence of the pouring rain outside, the poignant close-up shots of the anguished parents and the lone scene that takes place away from the waiting room, which is used to accentuate the racism.  This is an excellent movie with mesmerizing performances by all the actors.  Now I want to watch the play!

Unfortunately, we did not like the Chinese spy thriller Saturday Fiction as much as the previous movie. Stylistically and beautifully filmed in black and white with primarily close shots to create a claustrophobic feel, the movie is set in 1941 Japanese-occupied Shanghai, a few days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Saturday Fiction is the name of a play which the famous but mysterious actress Jean Yu has returned to Shanghai to take part in.  The motivations of Yu are questionable, as she, as well as those around her could all be spies either for China, Japan, or the Allied Forces.  We found the plot to be convoluted and confusing, with action indistinguishably switching between scenes from the play and the rest of the movie.  It did not help that the Chinese and Japanese looked very similar and it was difficult to tell which was which until they spoke.  Also the white subtitles were often unreadable against white backgrounds.

Lyrebird is loosely based on the true story of Han van Meegeren, who was accused of being a Nazi collaborator for selling a priceless Vermeer painting to senior Nazi leader Hermann Goering.  Pleading not guilty, van Meegeren claimed that he actually duped Goering (amongst others) with a fake that he painted himself in the style of Vermeer.  To pass the chemical test that determines the age of the paint, Hans developed a special process using Bakelite plastic as a sealant.  The movie also depicts Allied officer Joseph Piller, who was assigned to find paintings stolen from Jewish owners and identify the collaborators who passed them on to the Nazis.  After being arrested, van Meegeren tries to prove his innocence by creating a “new Vermeer” while in Piller’s captivity.  Once convinced, Piller ends up defending van Meegeren in an exciting but mostly fictitious trial proceeding, enhanced for entertainment purposes.  We first heard about Hans van Meegeren when we watched the stage play “The Bakelite Masterpieces”, which re-imagined Piller as a female Jewish art expert who had her own dark history.  By comparison, the movie gives an informative account of Piller’s family life and motivations.

Watching the French/Belgian psychodrama Sibyl, the phrase “Physician heal thyself” comes to mind.  Sibyl is a psychologist who wants to wind down her practice so that she can concentrate on becoming a novelist.  Unfortunately she has writer’s block and can’t come up with any original ideas on her own.  When she becomes engrossed in her patient Margo, Sibyl ends up using details of Margo’s life and problems as plot points for her book, even replicating actual conversations that Margo has with others.  In addition to totally violating doctor-patient confidentiality, Sibyl seems to have many issues of her own.  She has frequent flashbacks to a failed relationship, is impulsive, lacks good judgement and imposes herself more and more into Margo’s life.   

On the second day of the festival, we were in for a rude surprise. Without prior warning, we found out that TIFF had implemented a new policy for Patron Circle members watching Press and Industry screenings.  As opposed to being able to waltz into a theatre even minutes before run-time merely by showing our badges, we now had to go outside and stand in a rush line for each movie, regardless of whether there was any indication that the movie would be full or not. As a result, we needed more time between movies and could see less of them, and might not get into the more popular ones.  Even if we do get in, we might be relegated to the front rows where my eyesight prevents me from sitting without getting dizzy.  This negates the main benefit of our very expensive membership which I described in my previous blog, so this will probably be the last year that we sign up for it.  In the meantime, we had to soldier on with the rest of the festival but it was nowhere near as enjoyable as in previous years.

I loved my first movie on the second day of the festival.  It was a delightful Argentinian caper movie called Heroic Losers, set in the days just before and after their markets crashed and their currency was devalued in 2001.  A group of lovable locals pooled together their life savings to purchase a defunct granary and form a co-op in hopes of resurrecting it and providing jobs for their small village.  Unfortunately they were tricked by an unscrupulous banker into converting their US cash into Pesos and depositing the money into a bank account the day before the crash.  The fun begins when the group finds out that it was a scam.  All the money in the bank was withdrawn by a corrupt lawyer that same day and he has built an underground vault in the middle of a remote farm in order to hide the funds.  An ingenious and hilarious plan is devised in order to reclaim the stolen money.  This movie was such an unexpected gem.  One of the joys of attending a film festival is when you get to see foreign films that might never see the light of day otherwise.

Wild Goose Lake Is a Chinese noir about street gang leader Zhou Zenong who is on the run and the “bathing beauty” prostitute Liu Aiai who offers to help him .. for a price. Told initially through a pair of flashbacks, we find out why Zhou is in his predicament and how Liu came to approach him. Zhou is part of a motorcycle theft ring that gets into a turf war with a rival gang. During a contest between the two gangs to determine which one can steal the most bikes in one night, violence erupts resulting in Zhou inadvertently killing a police officer. Loyalties are questioned and double-crosses are abundant as Zhou struggles to do right by his wife and young son by having her turn him in for the reward money. For me, the most interesting scene in this movie was at the beginning when the gangs attend a seminar on the various techniques for stealing a motorbike, as well as the ones depicting the bathing beauty prostitutes who had sex with their johns in the lake. The most confusing point of the film was why Zhou was wearing the same shirt as the rival gang as opposed to his own gang. The rest of the movie was pretty much standard fare for the Chinese gangster film genre.

Not being able to get into another press screening, we wandered instead into the 2nd of a 5-part documentary series called Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema. Based on the title of the series, I thought the documentary would focus on the proverbial “female gaze” as it applies to film making.  Instead, what we got were in-depth, insightful explanations of different aspects of film making, using movies made by female directors from across 5 continents and 13 decades as examples to illustrate the points being made.  In our segment, the film discussed Staging, The Journey, Editing, The Parent-Child Relationship, Economy/Minimalism, Point of View, Close-up, and Dream Sequences/Surrealism.  The most interesting discussion related to staging, as we were taught how to view characters’ placement and movement across an X-axis (left to right) as opposed to a Z-axis (front to back).  There was also a stunning sequence in one film where the use of a mirror on the swinging door of an armoire slowly revealed the various characters within a death-bed scene.  To illustrate point of view, one movie filmed a scene from the perspective of a young child hiding under a table, where she witnessed the men sitting at the table from their feet only.  One took off his shoes, while another scratched his ankles.  Later on in the festival, I caught portions of Part 4 and 5 of the documentary, which covered topics including filming of memory and the passing of time, use of stillness, the decision of what to keep in a frame and what to leave out, how to depict love, death and thought.  The series has been picked up by Criterion Films as well as Kanopy (which the libraries access) so I would love to catch the sections that I missed when they become available.

Our third day of TIFF started off well with Just Mercy, a movie that is definitely Oscar-bound since it hits all the points desired for Oscar bait including a poignant plot, social justice theme, and stellar performances by Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson. The movie is based on the memoirs of black Harvard-educated lawyer Bryan Stevenson who created the foundation Equal Justice Initiative and returned to Alabama to defend death row inmates who were never given proper representation. While it shows Stevenson’s interactions with multiple inmates (of all races), the main focus of the movie is his defence of Walter McMillan (aka Johnny D), a father of three who was railroaded into a conviction for the murder of an 18-year-old white girl based on coerced false testimony and suppressed evidence.

Military Wives is inspired by actual choir groups comprised of the wives of military soldiers and officers in army bases around the world. These choirs were formed to keep the wives busy and distracted while their mates were deployed in dangerous situations. The movie provides a fictional depiction of one such group and does a good job of showing the stress and fear that these women feel, imaging the worst with every phone call and doorbell ring. Kristen Scott Thomas and Sharon Hogan are entertaining as the no-nonsense colonel’s wife Kate, and Lisa, the rules-adverse wife of the Regimental Sergeant Major, who attempt to lead the choir but have differing philosophies of how to go about it.  The choir gives the military wives a purpose and sense of comradery as they build bonds and friendship through singing.  It was interesting seeing images of some actual groups of military wives’ choirs at the end of the movie.

A Bump Along the Way is a fairly typical coming of age story set in Northern Ireland about a prim and proper teenager with the daunting name of Allegra, grappling with the social pressures of school including bullies and a school-girl crush on a classmate.  Things get worse when Allegra’s middle-aged free-spirited mother Pamela becomes pregnant after a one night stand with a man almost half her age.  The character of Pamela was delightfully brash and irrepressible, and so well-meaning that you really root for her.  There is nothing much new for a movie of this genre, but I was surprised when I first heard the characters speak with their heavy Derry accents, since I was under the false impression that this movie was Canadian!

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

TIFF 2019 - Advanced Screenings

For the past three years, my husband Rich and I have purchased a TIFF Patron's Circle Gold membership that allows us to watch Press and Industry (P&I) screenings of movies being shown at the Toronto International Film Festival.  Although it costs quite a bit of money, we have prioritized this into our annual entertainment budget since we really enjoy having the opportunity to watch such  eclectic films of varying genres from around the world.  Watching the press screeners allows us to pack more movies into a day since we save the time usually spent traveling between theatres, waiting in line to get into the theatre, the 10+ minutes of watching the same commercials before every film and the Q&A after the movie (although I do miss this last part).  Comparing the projected length of a press screening versus a public screening, the difference is up to 30 minutes per movie.  This allows us to potentially fit in an extra movie per day, schedule permitting.

Adding to our ability to maximize movie watching is the offering of "Advanced Screenings" which are held for 5-6 days at then end of August, in advance of the festival.  There are around 3 movies per day that are selected by the festival organizers.  These are usually not the "prestige" movies with big stars or directors, since many members of the press have not arrived in Toronto yet.  Not having any say in which movies are shown, we merely make the decision of whether we want to watch each advanced screener or not.  This actually allows us to expand our viewing experiences a bit outside of our comfort zone, since often we are watching movies that we might not have picked for ourselves.  This year there were many more interesting movies available for advanced screening than usual and we picked 12 out of 15 to watch.  We would cinematically take a whirlwind worldwide tour of movies from Australia, Germany, South Africa, Korea, USA, Uruguay, Japan, Israel, Brazil, France and Canada, all in 5 days.  We enjoyed most of them and four of the movies were even on our shortlists to watch during the regular festival.  Being able to watch them in advance allowed us to substitute in other movies during the festival.  In all, Rich and I will each watch over 40 movies at this year’s TIFF.

Our first advanced screener was the bio-pic of 1970's Australian pop singer Helen Reddy, titled after her iconic feminist anthem "I Am Woman".   The movie depicts Reddy's journey towards international superstardom and all the sexism she faced along the way, making her role in inspiring the 70s women's movement all the more poignant.  The film starts with Helen's arrival in America with her young daughter Tracy in tow, hoping to score a recording contract.  It explores Reddy's friendship with journalist and fellow Australian ex-pat Lilian Roxon and her turbulent relationship with husband and manager Jeff Wald, as they struggled to launch her singing career.  Along the way, most of Helen Reddy's big hits are performed including my favourites "Angie Baby" and "You and Me Against the World".  I Am Woman hits all the standard tropes of a bio-pic that follows the rise and fall of a performer.  But the tie-in to the social issues with the women's lib movement and their fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment give this film a bit of extra gravitas and even relevance, especially in light of recent events in the USA, where women's rights seem to be taking a step backwards.  I came out of the movie feeling "strong", "invincible" and ready to "roar".

The Audition is a German/French co-production about an overly strict and demanding violin teacher Anna, who becomes fixated on the success of a pupil that she championed despite misgivings from her fellow instructors. This pupil becomes a vicarious substitute for her own failed career as a concert violinist, caused first by illness and then by the psychological fear of failure.  Added to this is her disappointment at being unable to motivate her own son to devote himself solely to the violin, since he has other interests such as hockey.  Anna’s demand for perfection ends up alienating her pupil, son and husband, leading to a shocking outcome after a long slow build-up. This movie is beautifully shot with depth-of-focus images that linger on closeups of the characters, where all their thoughts and emotions are revealed through their expressions.

Knuckle City is a South African film about an aging, womanizing boxer named Dudu and his career criminal younger half-brother Duke, who grew up in the rough and tumble setting of Mdantsane, South Africa where the two main industries are boxing and crime. The common wisdom of the town states that there are only three ways to escape Mdantsane—as a boxing champ, in the back of a squad car or in a pine box. The movie depicts the repetitive cycle of poverty, corruption and male toxicity, as the brothers pick up their vices from their violent, gun-toting boxer father who seduces young high-school girls, using Dudu to lure them out of the house. The standard trope of the washed-up boxer’s last shot at success is given a South African spin, heightened by the unusually huge personal stakes associated with the final bout. Familial loyalties and the measure of a man by his ability to protect his family are also main themes throughout the film.

Parasite is an fascinating Korean film about a family of impoverished ne'er-do-wells named Kim, who insidiously weasel their way into the employ of a wealthy family.  This is a scathingly satirical commentary on class wars, poverty, and homelessness. Using fake identities and credentials, the Kim son and daughter get themselves hired as tutor and art therapist for the spoiled children of the wealthy Park family, then use deception and sabotage to allow their parents to replace the current chauffeur and live-in housekeeper. The movie highlights the marked disparity in the attitudes of and issues faced by the rich versus the poor.  For example, the day after a torrential downpour devastatingly floods that destroys the Kim's basement hovel, the self-centred Park matriarch obliviously plans an extravagant party and marvels at how fabulous it was that the rain had cleansed the air.  The tone continually changes in the movie as it morphs from dark comedy to socio-political satire to almost campy horror and finally to melodrama.  Although we watched it early in the TIFF schedule, Parasite may well end up being one of our favourite movies of this year’s festival.

Blow the Man Down is an American dark comedy set in a small fishing village that features two sisters who just buried their mother, a killing in self defence and the subsequent cover-up, a murder mystery, a contentious brothel, "Fargo"-esque cops, a trio of old busybodies and a slew of secrets. The film’s atmosphere is frothily tense and interspersed with fishermen acting almost like a Greek Chorus as they belt out lusty renditions of the old sea shanty after which the movie was named.  Blow the Man Down is light and entertaining, providing much needed respite from the plethora of depressing dramas and intense action thrillers coming up in our schedule.  This was actually a movie that made my picks for the actual festival.  Seeing it in advance allowed me to substitute in another film instead.

The MoneyChanger takes place in Uruguay in the 1970s when that country became a haven for stashing money from the failing economies in Argentina and Brazil.  Told in first person monologue, the film follows the overly ambitious Humberto Brause as he marries his boss' daughter and takes over his father-in-law's modest and only slightly illegal money laundering business.  Once in charge, Brause takes on more and more risky business, dealing with dangerous political and military personnel from neighbouring countries.  This film is marketed as a comedy and Brause is supposed to come across as a sympathetic, lovable rogue.  Unfortunately I did not find the protagonist to be the least bit likeable and the only funny part of the movie was the recurring joke of Humberto not being able to order a cup of coffee after his heart attack, since his wife had warned off everyone in town from serving him.  This movie did not really resonate with me.  Often I find it difficult to relate to foreign comedies, either due to cultural differences or possibly tone or meaning lost in translation.  I felt the same way about Three Summers, described further down in this blog.

I was almost scared away from watching the epic Chinese film So Long, My Son, due to its THREE HOUR running time! This extremely ambitious movie (part of a planned trilogy) tells a very personal story of three sets of friends navigating through the changing political, social, and economic landscape of China from the 1980s, just after the cultural revolution, through to current day. By following the lives and traumas faced by these three couples, we are given a glimpse into the harsh dictatorial policies faced by the Chinese during this earlier period including forced abortions to enforce the “one-child” policy, loss of previously guaranteed employment, and incarceration for debauchery for embracing Western music, all under the auspices of supporting the greater good of the motherland.

The main trauma in the movie occurs when one couple’s only son drowns, possibly caused by actions of the son of another couple. The subsequent story of grief and guilt is told through a series of time jumps that are difficult to follow since the people do not look that different between some of the various time periods. You resort to desperately looking for clues in clothing, hair style, technology, and setting to determine when a scene takes place chronologically.  The time jumps do allow for a slow reveal of some of the plot points. The movie could have been cut by 30-60 minutes without losing too much of the plot, since much time is spent on the grieving couple sitting around looking melancholy. Despite its length, the movie is quite engrossing and very interesting in its depiction of China over this turbulent period.

37 Seconds is a tender, heartwarming Japanese film about Yuma, a wheelchair-bound young woman who suffers from cerebral palsy, caused by an incident during her birth when she could not breathe for 37 seconds. Yuma strives to break free from her over-protective mother and establish herself as a manga artist in her own right, as opposed to secretly selling her drawings to a YouTube star who takes credit for the work.  Because of her child-like voice and features, and the way her mother treats her, we do not realize that Yuma is 23 until more than half way through the film. In her quest for independence, Yuma befriends several people who live on the fringe of society and being slightly marginalized themselves, find it easier to accept her.  The movie does a wonderful job of showing the trials and tribulations as well as the prejudices and discrimination faced by the disabled. But it also highlights the strength of Yuma’s spirit and the warmth of her personality. When disabled first-time actress Mei Kayama who plays Yuma smiles, your heart grows two sizes and you want to wrap your arms around her and make sure nothing bad happens to her.

Filmed in Israel, Incitement deals with the events leading up to the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, shortly after he ratified the final act of the Oslo Peace Accord. The movie delves into the family life and background of the assassin Yigal Amir, exploring the various factions and factors that may have incited him to commit the crime, as hinted at by the title of the film.  It could have been a culmination of Amir's experience in the military which had hardened him, the inflammatory rhetoric of political figures like opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, or the rabbis whose religious interpretations of the Torah advise that it is the duty of a devout Jew to kill Rabin since he has been deemed a "Pursuer" and an "Informer" (i.e. a traitor) against the Jewish faith.  The film plays out like a taut thriller, even though the outcome is a well-known part of history.  Historic video clips of Rabin giving speeches at various rallies are used to give the film a more realistic feel. Especially powerful is the real footage of the actual assassin dressed in a blue t-shirt, waiting to do the deed, intercut with the actor playing Amir, dressed in the same way. Having watched the theatre play Oslo about the secret negotiations leading to the Oslo Accord, viewing Incitement felt like we were watching a sequel.

The themes of class and wealth disparity seem to be a common thread in many movies this year.  In the Korean film Parasite (described above), the rich are portrayed as arrogant, insensitive and pretentious while the poor are depicted as conniving and deceitful.  The Brazilian film Three Summers has a similar view of the rich family that owns a group of luxury beach-side condos, but portrays their working class servants as clever and resourceful.  In particular, the head caretaker Madá maintains a level head and cheerful demeanor through adversity, especially after her boss is arrested for money-laundering and stealing from schools and hospitals.  Striving to keep the luxury condo complex afloat and maintain paying jobs for herself and her co-workers, Madá comes up with ingenious ways to make money including a yard sale, giving tourists boat tours to view the homes of corrupt and currently jailed business men or officials, running a B&B, and renting out the space for TV commercials.  The movie takes place over three Christmases, which corresponds to the summer season since Brazil is located south of the equator.  Even knowing this, it was strange seeing a huge Christmas tree and decorations amid the sand, surf and palm trees.

The Canadian documentary Coppers is a  comprised of a series of interviews with retired police officers who worked in cities throughout Ontario including various parts of Toronto, Mississauga, Bramalea, Niagara Falls, and Barrie, as well as one from Halifax.  The ex-cops share poignant, heart-felt anecdotes about why they got into policing, harrowing experiences on the job, their coping mechanisms and what ultimately made them leave the police force including the long-term toll that it had on some of them.  In addition to a desire to help people, many called themselves adrenaline junkies.  They described horrific car and motorcycle crashes where bodies were mangled, decapitated, or thrown into trees.  One ex-cop coped through the use of dark humour, calling the final death throes (involuntary spasms of a dying victim) as "doing the chicken".   Several spoke of the lack of support received for their suffering of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), resorting to drugs and alcohol (and suicide by some of their co-workers) to deal with it.  One retired cop cannot bear having anyone sit in a seat behind him and therefore always goes for the very last row in an airplane where the seat is backed by a wall.  Female and non-white ex-cops spoke of the discrimination and bullying that they faced from their fellow officers, calling the stress from that worse than anything they saw while on their beats.  This was a fascinating and enlightening documentary to watch.

In the Canadian drama White Lie, Katie is a university student from Hamilton, Ontario who fakes having melanoma (malignant skin cancer) in order to raise funds for cancer research, which she keeps for her own personal gain.  Attempting to qualify for a special bursary designed to help ailing students, Katie pays to have fake medical records created to support her cancer claims.  When her story starts to unravel, instead of confessing, Katie doubles down on her lies.  The movie starts with a scene of Katie shaving her head to simulate hair-loss resulting from chemo treatments.  As someone who has gone through chemo myself, I immediately whispered to my husband that her well-defined eyebrows might give her away (since my eyebrows thinned out quite a bit).   The performance by Kacey Rohl who plays Katie is mesmerizing.  Although it is not specified in the TIFF write-up about the movie, it is probable that the inspiration for this plot was based on the real-life scam of Ashley Kirilow from Ontario, who faked cancer and used Facebook to raise large sums in support of cancer research in 2008. Because she claimed her motivation was to make her family pay for her unhappy childhood, one psychiatrist labelled Ashley's behaviour as "Münchausen Syndrome by internet".

We actually watched one extra movie prior to the start of the film festival.  This was the annual "CEO Choice" bonus movie that Patron Circle members are invited to screen around the second week of August.  In the past years, the TIFF CEO was Piers Handling and he had a preference for French movies.  Handling retired and was replaced by Cameron Bailey, so we wondered what he would pick.  Surprise, it was once again a French movie!  Bailey chose Proxima, another French/German co-production set in a world where space travel to Mars is possible and would take 1 year for the round-trip.  The team assembled for the mission include an American played with macho bluster by Matt Dillon, a male Russian cosmonaut, and a female French astronaut Sarah, who also happens to be separated from her husband and the mother to a young daughter named Stella.  The director and writer of the screenplay was Alice Winocour.  While I had heard the term "female gaze" vs "male gaze" used in describing movies, I did not really understand until I saw Proxima.  The film focused mostly on Sarah and how she dealt with the conflicting priorities of her job as opposed to being there for Stella, who is struggling with the idea that her mother would be gone for so long.  The movie also shows how Sarah has to work extra hard to prove that she is as strong and capable as the other male astronauts.  There is even a scene where she is asked whether she wants to continue menstruating while in space.  This would never have been a conversation in the male-centric astronaut movies like The Right Stuff or First Man.