Friday, September 21, 2018

TIFF 2018

Each year, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) experience is a major exercise in planning, logistics and scheduling.  The annual TIFF process involves choosing a shortlist of desired movies from almost 300 offerings and then trying to fit as many of them as possible into a nine day window during which we can attend special press and industry screenings held at the Scotiabank Theatre.  This year we had the extra wrinkle of a family wedding in Vancouver which fell on the first Saturday of the festival.  Wanting to minimize the impact that this short interruption would have on our film festival time, we came up with a totally unreasonable, overly ambitious plan.  We would watch an 8:45am movie on the Saturday, head to Pearson Airport for a 2pm flight that landed in Vancouver at 4pm, attend the wedding from 6pm-10:45pm, head to the Vancouver Airport for a 12:45am red-eye flight back to Toronto catching whatever sleep that we could, land at 8am Sunday morning, rush home to shower, and then somehow, I would watch two more movies at noon and 4pm before collapsing with exhaustion.  Amazingly, this insane plan went off like clockwork with no unexpected surprises or delays and we were in a different time zone for such a short period of time that there was no jet lag to deal with.  My husband Rich had a bit less stamina and chose to skip the Sunday movies, but we were both back at it on Monday.

Despite our quick cross-country trek, we still had a good festival, watching between 30-33 movies each including previews starting the week prior to the festival.  This was a step back from the 40+ movies that we watched last year, but not just because of our trip.  This year we found it much more difficult to find movies that we wanted to watch.  I usually look for foreign or indie movies that would not be coming to the theatres imminently and comedies or feel-good movies which are always a rarity within the festival lineup.  This year, I could not find any movie that was an all-out comedy (unlike last year's hilarious C'est La Vie), and had to settle for light dramas with comedic moments or light comedies with major dramatic moments.  I also had trouble filling my schedule with foreign or indie movies and ended up watching many more mainstream films than usual.  As always, I saw some excellent movies that I loved, a bunch that were just OK, and one that we thought was so stupid that we walked out after 30 minutes.  In previous years I have blogged about just about all the movies that I watched, but this year I will just describe the ones that I enjoyed the most.

My favourite movie of the festival was the Spanish sub-titled "Everybody Knows" starring Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, who happen to be married in real life.  Cruz plays Laura, who returns to her home town with her daughter and son in order to attend her sister's wedding.  When her daughter is kidnapped during the reception, the frantic search and attempt to raise ransom money opens up old familial wounds and drudges up long hidden secrets.  The acting is first rate all around and the tension is taut in this film that spans the genres of drama, mystery and thriller.

The Belgian film "Duelles" is psychological thriller that plays out like a classic Alfred Hitchcock movie.  The sense of dread and foreboding is purposely ratcheted from the very first scene when you see a woman furtively sneak into her neighbour's home for some unknown reason while dramatic music plays in the background.  It turns out that in this case, the director is just playing with his audience, but the tension that he generates is a harbinger of things to come.  Alice and Celine are next-door neighbours and best friends who each live with a husband and young son.  When tragedy strikes one of the families, it changes the dynamic of the friendship forever and the concepts of suspicion, paranoia, blame, responsibility and retribution are explored.

Having enjoyed watching a Japanese drama at the past few festivals, I was excited to watch this year's offering called "Shoplifters" and it did not disappoint.  A rag-tag group of misfits who subsist on shoplifting, scams and petty crimes, find a neglected and abused little girl and decide to take her home and add her to their "family unit".  Despite living in poverty and resorting to immoral or illegal activities to survive, the multi-generational group displays a true affection for one another that is touching and makes you root for them.  This is a very sweet, soulful movie that explores the theme of what makes a real family, as the true nature of the relationships between this mismatched group is slowly revealed.  Shoplifters will be Japan's official submission for Best Foreign Film in the 2019 Academy Awards.

The heart-wrenching Belgian film "Kursk" is based on the true story of the Russian submarine disaster in 2000 that killed all 118 personnel on board.  This included a group of 23 sailors who survived an initial torpedo explosion, only to run out of oxygen and drown days later after rescue attempts were hampered by incompetence, arrogance and politics on behalf of the Russian government and military.  In order for Russia to save face and protect its military secrets, foreign assistance from multiple countries including USA, Britain and France was refused until it was too late to save the men on the K-141 Kursk submarine.  The sense of tragedy and waste of lives of the doomed crewmen is heightened by first depicting them in happier times prior to the fateful mission.  We are introduced to the fictional submarine captain Mikhail Kalekov, his pregnant wife Tanya and their young son, and then shown the wedding ceremony of one of the crewmen, which further deepens the audience's connection with the men and emphasizes their camaraderie and loyalty to each other.  This is a very powerful movie with excellent cinematography in the depiction of the dark, dank, confined space where the crewmen of the disabled submarine endured their final days.  Two poignant scenes towards the end of the movie hark back to scenes from the beginning of the film, further tugging at one's heartstrings.  Unfortunately, the decision to use a cast who were mainly French, Belgian or English, and all spoke in accented English instead of using Russian subtitles, detracted from the emotional impact of the film.

The most comedic entry that I watched at this year's TIFF was not a movie at all, but rather a 4-episode TV mini-series.  Since 2015, a new category called "Prime Time" has been added to the festival's programming which offers a number of episodes of television series from around the world.  This format did not interest me in the past, since it involved watching just a couple of segments of an extended series that I may or may not be able to find the rest of on TV.  It did not seem worthwhile to have this teaser and then be left hanging.   A recent trend in television has been the short mini-series, which may span only 3-4 episodes while providing a complete story, just like a movie.  Watching something like this makes the format much more tenable for me.  

The four 40-minute-long episodes of the Israeli TV mini-series called "Stockholm" has a great premise that invokes comparisons to the classic movie Weekend At Bernie's.  Four life-long friends discover that the fifth friend in their group, the acclaimed and successful economist Avishai, has died a mere 5 days before the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize in Economics, for which he is the favourite to win this year.  Not wanting him to miss out on this honour (and for a few personal reasons by one of the friends), the group decides to postpone the revelation of his passing until after the announcement.  Of course, misunderstandings arise and unforeseen problems ensue.  But there are also serious moments as we learn about the hidden motivations of each of the remaining friends, and long-kept secrets come to the surface.  The final image of the series takes a second to comprehend  but it provides the perfect laugh-out-loud finale to this madcap farce.

"Assassination Nation" screened as part of the Midnight Madness program due to its cartoonishly gory scenes of violence.  But is actually quite the intelligent and witty satire that presents a modern day spin on the 17th century Salem Witch Trials, where unfounded accusations, mob mentality and mass hysteria led to the unjust persecution of innocent victims.  The misogyny, homophobia and the dangers of social media all come into play in the small town of Salem, where four young women are accused of being behind a series of computer hacks that have resulted in the exposure of the townspeople's embarrassing private information and volatile secrets.  In this age of #MeToo and female empowerment, it is not surprising that the besieged women fight back, resulting in a bloodbath worthy of the film's Midnight Madness pedigree.

I usually don't like documentaries as much as fictional movies, but this year we watched a couple that stood out from the rest, due to the unique ways in which the stories were told.  The first was "Screwball", which laid out the details of the Major League Baseball (MLB) doping scandal of 2013, which resulted in the suspension of 14 players for 50 or more games, including all-star Yankees infielder Alex Rodriguez who received a suspension for 162 games.  Anthony Bosch, the founder of the health clinic Biogenesis of America was found guilty of providing performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to major-league ball players, as well as to younger players in the minors.  The circumstances leading to the exposure of the doping scandal are told through interviews with Bosch, his disgruntled employee Porter Fisher who first blew the whistle on the shady dealings, as well as the Miami Times reporter who received the story, and a drug enforcement agent who was investigating the case.  Supporting these traditional documentary-styled interviews is a hilarious reenactment of the events of the scandal, using children to play all the roles of the people involved.  This emphasized how ridiculously childish all the participants acted, including A-Rod, the MLB commissioner and upper brass, and various gangsters, thugs and drug dealers that were in cahoots with Bosch.  No one comes across in a good light in this scathing depiction of attempted cover-ups, incompetence and greed.

The second documentary that interested me was "Maria By Callas", which eschewed the typical interviews from third parties that give their recollections about the subject.  Instead, the entire life story of superstar opera singer Maria Callas was told solely through her own words, images and actions via taped interviews, videos of performances, photographs and reading of letters that she had written.  This resulted in one of the most personal and in-depth biographical documentaries that I have ever seen, since so much of the information being received about Callas came directly from her.  In various interviews and letters, she reveals that she never really wanted to be a singer but was forced into it by her mother, and she felt misunderstood by those who deemed her divaesque and difficult.  Most touching were the segments describing her long-term affair with Aristotle Onassis and the heartfelt letter that she wrote to him when she thought they could finally be together after divorcing their respective spouses, only to find out in the news that he had married Jackie Kennedy instead.

Our most mainstream documentary was Michael Moore's latest work, titled "Fahrenheit 11-9", a play on the title of his previous film Fahrenheit 9-11, which in turn was a play on the famous book Fahrenheit 451.  November 9, 2016 marks the date that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States.  While part of Moore's documentary does focus on Trump, with a cleverly irreverent comparison of the president to Adolf Hitler, the main focus of the movie deals with the factors that led to the election of such a divisive candidate, including feelings of disenfranchisement and disillusionment from the electorate.  But while all the Trump-bashing was expected, the most shocking revelation came as an indictment against Obama.  Much of the film describes the tragedy and travesty of the Flint Michigan water crisis which came about when Governor Rick Synder authorized moving the water source of the mostly poor, black community from the safe clean drinking water of Lake Huron to the lead-poisoned water of the Flint River.  I knew much about this part of the story, including the denials from Synder that the water was actually unsafe.  What I did not know was that President Obama finally visited Flint, promising aid for the people who thought that they had found salvation at last.  Instead, Obama made a show of pretending to drink the contaminated Flint water, thus perpetuating the illusion that there was not such a big issue and that the water was safe.  Watching this just about broke my heart and made me understand why many disgusted and disillusioned people in Michigan did not bother to vote for either Democrats or Republicans, since what was the difference and what was the point? 

One of my favourite mainstream American movies starred comedienne Melissa McCarty in her most poignant dramatic role in "Can You Ever Forgive Me", the true-story bio-pic about biographer Lee Israel, who resorted to forging correspondence from famous dead writers such as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward.  Israel was able to copy the style and wit of the writers that she was imitating, thereby generating gossipy correspondence that was of interest to buyers.  After coming under suspicion of creating forgeries, she took to stealing real letters from libraries and archives, then replacing them with her fakes.  In addition to being a fascinating story, what made the movie special was the amazing performance by McCarty, who was able to invoke sympathy and pathos for a frumpy, unpleasant and generally unlikable character.

Selecting and scheduling TIFF movies involves trade-offs and making tough decisions, since often several movies that you want to see are scheduled at the same time or overlap each other.  This year, I decided that rather than picking between two movies with conflicting schedules, I would try to see at least part of both of them.   I was ambivalent about whether I wanted to watch "A Star is Born" starring Bradley Cooper and Stefani Germanotti (aka Lady Gaga), since I have watched previous versions of this melodrama before and knew how depressing and maudlin it would get, as Cooper's character spirals into self-destruction in the second half of the movie.  After having watched an extremely sad Chinese movie called Baby, I really did not want to go through heartache again so soon.  On the other hand, I had heard such rave reviews on the acting ability of Lady Gaga that I wanted to experience this for myself.

Accordingly, I watched the first 45 minutes of A Star is Born (the happy, meet-cute, falling-in-love part) and then ducked out to watch the more lighthearted bio-pic called "The Old Man and the Gun", which has been rumoured to be Robert Redford's last acting role.  Redford plays the real-life Forrest Tucker, a charming career criminal who robbed banks for the fun of it, had been caught and escaped from prison 18 times, including his 1979 escape from San Quentin State Prison in California when he and two other inmates built a kayak and paddled away to freedom.  When the police interviewed the bank manager or teller of a bank that Tucker had robbed, they would always mention how polite he was and how he always smiled.  I enjoyed the parts that I watched of each of these films.  This might become a new trend for meto only watch the happy parts of movies!

Another scheduling decision that I had to make was between watching "The Front Runner", starring Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart, whose cheating scandal torpedoed his chances at the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, and a documentary enticingly titled "The Truth About Killer Robots".  The timing of the movies overlapped by less than 10 minutes, and even less than that when you account for closing credits.  So I decided that I would watch The Front Runner up to the last 10 minutes and then move on to the documentary.  As it turns out, The Front Runner was a very good movie with excellent performances by the entire cast. In addition to focusing on Hart, the film gave insight into the perspectives of his long-suffering wife Lee, his mistress Donna Rice, as well as his campaign team and the newspaper reporters chasing the story and dealing with the journalistic dilemma of whether his personal life was relevant to his candidacy.  It is interesting to note that in light of the dalliances of John F Kennedy who preceded Hart, as well Bill Clinton and Donald Trump who followed him, it seems like Gary Hart fell into a brief window of time where infidelity and adultery did make a difference, and candidates were judged based on their personal lives. Before him, the press didn't ask personal questions, and currently the public doesn't seem to care.  Unfortunately, The Truth About Killer Robots was not a very interesting movie and the title was misleading.  While it did spend some time on human deaths caused by manufacturing robots, self driving cars and drones used in wartime strikes, much of the film dealt with how robots affected jobs and daily life.  I'm glad I didn't miss much of the previous movie in order to watch this one.

On our last day of watching press screenings, Rich chose to watch Green Book, which started 45 minutes before my movie selection, the French film Mademoiselle de Joncquières.  While Green Book sounded very interesting, it was a mainstream movie that already had a scheduled theatrical release date of Nov. 21, while I might not have another chance to watch the French movie.  But I decided to watch the first 45 minutes of Green Book to find out whether I would want to watch the rest of the film when it comes to the theatre.

Based on a true story, Green Book explores the relationship between African-American jazz concert pianist Don Shirley and his bodyguard/driver, the Italian bouncer Anthony Vallelonga (aka Tony Lip), as they traveled through the USA deep south for Shirley's multi-city concert tour in the 1960s.  Over the course of the trip, the odd pair learn to understand, respect and even like each other.  The title of the film refers to the "Negro Motorist Green Book", a guide published from 1936-1966 in order to help blacks find safe lodgings in the south.  Tony Lip's real-life son Nick participated in writing the screen play and many of his actual relatives acted as family members in the movie.  I left before the pair had reached the south and things would get darker, but the part that I watched was such a feel-good movie, and so endearing and humorous that I almost gave up on my French film in order to finish watching it.  I slightly regretted not staying even more when I learned that this movie was chosen for the coveted Grolsch People's Choice Award.  I will definitely try to watch the rest of it when it comes to the theatres.

Luckily, Mademoiselle de Joncquières was also a good movie, although not quite as joyous as Green Book.  This is a dramedy of manners in the vein of Dangerous Liaisons.  Finally succumbing to the charms and declaration of affection from known rogue and ladies man Marquis des Arcis and then promptly being dumped by him once he loses interest, the bitter and spurned widow Madame de La Pommeraye plots her revenge.  La Pommeraye finds a mother and her beautiful daughter who have fallen on hard times and have resorted to prostitution to survive.  She dresses them up as the pious and respectable Madame and Mademoiselle de Jonquières, then dangles them in front of the Marquis, giving him the one thing that he cannot resistthe challenge of conquest over the breathtaking but seemingly unobtainable daughter.

We watched a few more main stream movies that were very enjoyable including Widows, The Hate U Know, Jeremiah Terminator Leroy and Red Joan, all of them scheduled to be released in the theatres before the end of the year.  I also watched several Canadian movies, a confusing Spanish thriller, a Mexican heist movie, a Danish dramedy about a dysfunctional family at Christmas, a French comedy that wasn't very funny and a German melodrama.  That's a wrap for TIFF 2018!  Looking forward to next year.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Theatre: Fun Home

When our 2017/18 Mirvish Theatre subscription included the hit musical Come From Away for the second time (it was also in the 2016/17 season), those who did not want to watch it again were given the option to pick another show from Mirvish's list of bonus (non-subscription) shows.  Most of these shows were repeats of past musicals such as Motown the Musical, Phantom of the Opera and Chicago, which we were not interested in watching again.  The one new musical in this list was a jukebox musical called Bat Out of Hell, using the songs from the iconic album of the same name by  Meat Loaf.  But like many jukebox musicals of the past, Bat Out of Hell cobbled together a nonsensical story line as an weak excuse to belt out songs from the album, without any thought about whether or not the lyrics of the songs advanced the plot.  This was not an optimal option for us either.

Instead, we had our eye on a show which was part of the "Off-Mirvish" subscription series.  It was the musical Fun Home, which won five Tony Awards in 2015 including best musical, best lead actor, best book, best original score and best musical direction.  The musical is based on the award-winning autobiographical graphic novel "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by cartoonist Alison Bechdel.  It deals with her childhood and coming of age while growing up in the familial house/funeral home with her parents and two younger brothers, coming out as a lesbian while at college, discovering that her father Bruce was a closeted gay man who preyed on teen-aged boys, and his death shortly afterwards, possibly by suicide.  Like the graphic novel, the story in the musical is told in a non-linear fashion, using three different actresses to portray Alison at different stages of her life.  The musical opens with 43-year-old "big" Alison reminiscing about her past as she tries to document her memories in drawings for her comics and she acts as narrator and commentator throughout the show.  The next few scenes feature "small" Alison at age 10, innocent, exuberant, intelligent and already aware that she did not relate to "girly" clothes or activities.  Away at college at 19, "medium" Alison realizes and embraces her sexual orientation, coming out to her parents and starting her first lesbian relationship.

* Photo by CYLLA VON TIEDEMANN
The three actresses that play Alison at the various ages are all stellar, as are the rest of the cast.  But the one that really stands out is Hannah Levinson who plays small Alison. Levinson not only has a powerhouse singing voice for such a small body.  Her acting ability is outstanding as she navigates through both light-hearted and dramatic moments with equal aplomb.  In the song "Ring of Keys", small Alison spots a butch-looking lesbian for the first time and is filled with wonderment and excitement and the inexplicable kinship that she feels with the woman, ending with the perfect delivery of the song's final lyrics "...I know you".  Medium Alison, played by Sara Farb, also has a memorable moment during her big song "Changing My Major" which she sings after her first sexual encounter with Joan, who would become her girlfriend. Farb conveys the whirlwind of emotions that Alison is feeling, ranging from giddy joy to awkward embarrassment, in a performance that is both funny and endearing.

While the overall plot of Fun Home is dark and heart-wrenching, the musical intersperses a few cheery moments to lighten the mood.  The most uplifting is the humorously irreverent song "Come To The Fun Home", where small Alison and her brothers practice a commercial that they created to promote the family funeral business, which they nickname "Fun Home".  In the song "Raincoat of Love", in order to shut out the sounds of her parents fighting, small Alison imagines her family as members of a "Partridge Family"-esque group, singing about happiness and love.  Some of the characters in her fantasy are dressed in costumes like those worn by the TV singing group during their performances.  The lyrics and melody of Raincoat of Love seem to take inspiration from the Partridge Family songs "I Woke Up in Love This Morning" and "Having A Ball".  Much of the story focuses on Alison's relationship with her father Bruce, as well as his turmoil dealing with his closeted homosexuality, which he expresses in one of the last songs called "Edges of the World".  While that song was probably intended to be the eleven-o'clock number, the song that I found most heart-wrenching and powerful was the one sung by Alison's mother Helen.  In Days and Days, Helen (played by the fabulous Cynthia Dale) finally releases all of her repressed anger, sorrow, disappointment and shame over the years of living with and hiding Bruce's sordid secret.

After watching the live show, I read Alison Bechdel's graphic novel.  I found it quite interesting to see how the musical was so skillfully adapted from various vignettes in the comics book, sometimes creating a magnificent, poignant scene and song out of just a couple of cartoon panels.  Bechdel's extremely personal work helped her to work through her feelings about her father, while a follow-up graphic novel called "Are You My Mother" delves into her relationship with her mother, as well as all the psychotherapy that Alison has gone through in order to cope with her difficult family situation.

Fun Home is a groundbreaking musical that features a lesbian protagonist and a female duo who won the Tony award for best original score, both considered to be firsts.  This short, one-act show deftly encapsulates the essence of Bechdel's tragicomedy, feeling both personal and socially relevant at the same time.  I'm really glad that we chose this smaller, more intimate show based on original music, that was deep, powerful and very rewarding to watch.

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.