Saturday, February 25, 2012

2012 Oscar Movies

I love the Oscars.  Until recently, I've made it a yearly ritual to watch all the Best Picture nominated movies, and try to catch as many other categories as I can.  This sometimes made for a very depressing experience, since the Academy (rumoured to be made up of a bunch of old white males) seemed to always pick the "wrist-slittingly" depressing movies, or the huge epic dramas that were often extremely long, sometimes very stodgy and boring, and more likely than not was a period piece that involved a war (The Thin Red Line, Out of Africa, The Last Emperor come to mind).

I finally gave up on my tradition when the Academy decided (in what I think is a money-grab scheme) to increase the number of Best Picture candidates from 5 to 10.  In my opinion, this just diminishes the prestige of being selected  and 10 movies are just too many to watch in the short period of time between the nomination announcement and the actual televised show.

This year has been surprising and unusual in that there are not 5 and not 10, but 9 nominated Best Pictures.  Apparently there is a criteria for being chosen after all.  Each candidate needs to receive at least a certain percentage of first place votes, and not enough movies filled the bill.  Not only that but this year there has been a unusual proportion of feel good movies meant solely to entertain and not necessarily to weigh you down with its deep dark message.   Of the movies I've selected to watch before the Oscars, here are my favourites in order of preference, selected purely based on how much I personally enjoyed them.
  1. The Artist
  2. Hugo
  3. Midnight in Paris
  4. Incredibly Close and Extremely Loud
  5. Moneyball
  6. The Help
Through either lack of time or interest, I have forgone War Horse (the stereotypical Academy pick), The Tree of Life and The Descendants (not on DVD yet).  In order to have any sort of vested interest in watching the Oscars and sitting through all those acceptance speeches, I still try to watch at least one movie from as many categories as I can get to.  Therefore Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, Bridesmaids, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Beginners, Rango, Anonymous all add to my Oscar watching tally.

For Best Foreign Film, national pride (and availability) prompted me to go see the pick from Canada ("Monsieur Lazhar") playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  Set in an elementary school in Quebec, it evaluates the impact of a sudden death on a grade 6 class and their teacher's attempts to help them mourn through communication, despite pressures from his superiors to suppress the taboo subject.  The teacher has his own back story that makes him aptly qualified to deal with this topic. This is a quiet, somber, touching movie with humourous moments and natural, non- precocious children, unlike the ones found in typical Hollywood movies.  I'm not sure this small, intimate film will hold up against its competition, which includes a Holocaust thriller "In Darkness" which seems right up the Academy's alley.

Another quick way to cover multiple movies within a couple of lessor known categories is to watch the Oscar nominated Live and Animated Shorts, again shown at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  Canada is represented in 2 of the 5 animated shorts.  Unfortunately I found them both to be slow and dull, both in terms of animation and plot.  Dimanche is about a boy's Sunday activities in small town Quebec, consisting of going to Church, playing at the railroad tracks, and Sunday dinner at relatives.  Wild Life is about a "ne're-do-well" Englishman, sent off to the Canadian Prairies in the early 1900s to make a life for himself as a rancher.  Although he writes letters home pretending otherwise, he finds the life harsh and isolating and finally succumbs to the bitter winter climate.

My opinion of these two films was possibly influenced by the fact that they were the first 2 shorts shown, at a time when I was still full from dinner and sleepy.  Or possibly I am so indoctrinated to expect the whimsical animations of Pixar and Disney with their wide-eyed characters and vibrant colours that I just can't appreciate the sophistication of these simpler, more intimate National Film Board offerings.  Regardless, I enjoyed the next three animated shorts much more.

 The Morning Stroll is a quirky film that shows three similar sequences from different times - the past, the present and the future.  In each case a chicken waddles down the street, passes a pedestrian who does a double-take, then proceeds up a flight of stairs, knocks (pecks) on a door and enters.  This charming film with its cool jazzy score brings new context to the age-old question "Why did the chicken cross the road?".

La Luna, by Pixar, tells the tale of a young boy out for the first time with his father and grandfather to help out with their very unusual job.  They clean the shooting stars off the moon.  The initial few seconds show the boy in the boat, emulating the stance and gestures of his two role models.  Once on the moon, the two men with different work styles each try to influence the boy, who eventually finds his own method.  This is a beautifully drawn, heart warming tale with the perfect money shot at the end.

Finally, the unanimous crowd favourite at our viewing was The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore, which is a celebration of books and the those who love them.   Avid reader Morris is tossed in the air by a tornado (ala Wizard of Oz) and blown away into a world of flying, dancing books.  One book in particular is personified by its Humpty Dumpty diagrams, which cleverly convey its emotions and communications with Morris through the use of "flip-book animation".

Morris becomes friend and custodian to the books, tenderly caring for them, "feeding and dressing them", mending them when they are "ill", giving them purpose by reading their stories, and finding them good homes with other book lovers.  The film switches to black and white during the tornado scene and later to depict the people before they are paired with books, after which they light up in vibrant colours.  This wonderful animated short's tribute to the power of books and stories reminds me of another one called "The Joy of Books" which was filmed at Toronto's own Type Books.

As good as the animated shorts were this year, I enjoyed the live action shorts even more.  Each one was a complete movie in its own right, with rich interesting plots that sucked you in for the brief period of time that it lasted.  Again surprisingly, there were four comedies and only one drama.  This must be the year for light-hearted movies!

Pentacost is about a mischevious altar boy in a Catholic parish in Ireland who is banned from watching his beloved soccer team play after he pulls a prank during a service.  Given one chance to redeem himself for an important mass led by the archbishop, the pressure is on .. will he come through?  The final scene makes you gasp and laugh at the same time.

 Time Freak is hilarious from start to finish.  A nerdy scientist has invented a time machine (shown with extremely low tech special effects which just adds to the humour).  He uses it to repeatedly go back into his recent past in order to finally come up with the perfect retorts to win an argument with a dry cleaner, to properly woo a love interest, and hide his invention from a nosy friend.

Tuba Atlantic is a weird Norwegian film about an eccentric old man diagnosed with cancer and given 6 days left to live.  Living alone in his ocean side shack, he battles seagulls with a machine gun and is estranged from his brother.  A teenaged girl training to be an "Angel of Death" arrives to support him in his final days.  She helps him fulfill his last wish, which is to reconcile with his brother.  They do this by resurrecting and fixing a giant tuba built by the two brothers as children, that is supposed to make a sound vibration so loud it will be heard across the ocean where his brother lives.

The Shore is an Irish movie and the only one starring a known actor, Ciarán Hinds who has been in many mainstream American movies.  He plays Joe, returning to his childhood town after many years to face the girl that he left behind, and the best friend who ended up marrying her.  Misunderstandings ensue until the final reunion.  This is a sweet gentle comedy that holds more chuckles than roaring laughter.

Raju is the only drama of the nominees and unexpectedly, it was my favourite even though I usually prefer comedies.  This tense film is a German/India collaboration which seems like a strange combination.  A German couple travel to India to "adopt" a boy who then disappears a couple of days after they receive him.  A frantic search results in some dark revelations and a moral dilemma.

Didn't get a chance to watch any documentaries, but I think I'm ready for the 2012 Oscars.  Can't wait for Billy Crystal's return as host.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Theatre: Mirvish 2012 Season

 David Mirvish presented his 2012 season in style, starting off by showing a black and white film clip in which the Ed Mirvish Theatre is swept up by a tornado.  As it spins in the air, past shows such as Les Mis, Phantom of the Opera, Private Lives, and War Horse floated by the window.  Then as he proceeded to announce the new shows one by one, he came out dressed as a Lion, then a Scarecrow, then a Tin man and finally brought a little white terrier onto the stage.  By that point, only the culturally illiterate would not have realized that "The Wizard of Oz" was going to be one of the new shows.

A new musical version of The Wizard of Oz is being staged, with an expanded story and new songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.  It was noted that the beloved movie has not been successful in its transition to stage in the past because there were not enough songs to support the major characters like the Witch and the Wizard, and there was no intro or the proverbial "11'O Clock" number.  All that will be rectified with the new production.  Dorothy came out to sing "Over the Rainbow" initially holding onto Toto, but he barked so incessantly that he had to be removed from the stage.  There are rumours that the Canadian Dorothy will be cast in a reality show like they did for the Sound of Music.  In that show, they ushered out the cast-off would-be Marias to the singing of "So Long, Farewell".. I wonder if they would sing "Ding, dong the Witch is Dead" on this new show?

By the time the smoke cleared on the season's lineup, it was revealed that all six shows in the subscription series would be musicals.  This is surprising since Mirvish usually provides a more eclectic mix that includes dramas and comedies.  My theory is that he is trying to compete with Dancap who scored some major musicals lately including the Tony award winners from 2010 and 2008 (Memphis,  In The Heights) and nominees including American Idiot and Next to Normal.  While I'm personally thrilled since I LOVE musicals, David Mirvish needs to be careful that he doesn't annoy his subscription base who may be expecting more variety in their theatre experience.

 This year Mirvish won the Tony award jackpot with the 2011 winner Book of Mormon, a collaboration by the creators of South Park and Robert Lopez, the writer of Avenue Q.  Lopez showed a film clip of the Broadway production, then described how he met Trey Parker and Matt Stone and found out that like himself, they also had the idea about making a musical comedy about Mormons.  I've heard the soundtrack for Book of Mormon, and I can say that prudes who disapprove of the type of language or topics discussed in South Park should stay away!

Similarly video was used to present the next two musicals.  Backbeat is based on the early days of the formation of the Beatles.  I'm concerned about whether I will be able to understand the strong Liverpool accents (which strangely don't show up when the Beatles sing) and wish there were subtitles for heavily-accented English shows.  I remember with dread a previous Mirvish show called The Harder They Come where the Jamaican accents were so thick and the idioms used so foreign that Mirvish held a members talk beforehand to educate patrons on the storyline and the lingo.. and still I had no idea what was being happening throughout the first act (we left before the second half).

 La Cage Aux Folles was appropriately introduced by a brash, sassy transvestite (with long beautiful legs, just like the actors from Priscilla Queen of the Desert).  George Hamilton will play the gay father who tries to hide his effeminate drag queen lover from the ultra-conservative parents of his son's fiancee.  Hamilton and his costar Christopher Sieber filmed a video conference to promote La Cage Aux Folles and their quick banter and chemistry bodes well for the show.

After all those taped introductions of the shows, we finally got some live performances for the final two musicals (which, other than wanting to find out first hand what was in the new season, is the main reason to attend this announcement).

The first was Sister Act, based on the Whoopi Goldberg movie.  The cast was on hand to perform a couple of song and dance numbers.  I did not find these songs to be very memorable so I'm hoping for more from the rest of the show.

Finally, there will be a brand new musical premiering in Toronto, based on the movie 1992  Honeymoon in Vegas.  The only thing I remember about this movie is Nicolas Cage jumping out of a plane with a bunch of flying Elvises.  The composer (Jason Robert Brown) came out to sing a couple of the songs, describing the plot leading up to each.  After hearing only a few notes from the first song, I was able to identify him as  the same one who wrote "The Last Five Years", since he more or less repeated bars of melody from that musical.  Finally Tony Danza appeared to sing his big number from the show.  I guess he represented the "big named celebrity" for this season.

 I was already in musical heaven but there was more!  Two bonus shows are being offered and again, they are musicals!  Now even I'm thinking that Mirvish has a one-track mind this year.  Bloodless, directed by Colm Wilkinson, has a dark Sweeney Todd-esque plot, score and lyrics including a deliciously morbid song called "He's Better Off Dead" which was performed on stage.   The second is Flashdance, based on the 1983 movie about the female welder who wants to be a ballerina.  Although it didn't happen during this preview performance, we are promised that in the live show, the star will indeed be doused with water like in the movie... suddenly the males in the audience were interested!  I'm actually more excited about the bonus musicals than some of the ones within the subscription - but maybe that's the whole point, since it prompted me to buy more shows.  Well played, David Mirvish!

Library Talks: Canterbury Tales

Over the past year, I've started to appreciate the vast and varied programs that are held at the various branches of the Toronto Public Library.  These include book club events where the author comes to talk about their book, as well as lectures and talks on selected books or writers.  Last year, for "Keep Toronto Reading" month, I read the featured book "Midnight at the Dragon Cafe" and attended a book club meeting hosted by the author Judy Fong Bates.  I sat in on a discussion about the cartoon series Tintin by a noted Tintin-ologist who traced the origins of creator Hergé's inspirations. Seduced by the chance to see famous Canadian author Michael Ondaatje speak, I showed up for a discussion about transforming his book Diversado into a stage play.  Unfortunately I did not have time to read even a synopsis let alone the book, so this made for a very confusing and unsatisfying experience - at very least, I should have read the Wikipedia summary.

Just recently, an English professor from the University of Toronto, specializing in medieval literature, came to our local Deer Park branch to talk about Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.  If you've ever tried to read the Canterbury Tales, you will know that this is not an easy read.  The "English" language of the 14th century bears little resemblance to the words we use in modern times.  Sentences like "And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;" make you reassess the complexity of reading Shakespeare.

Having learned my lesson from the Ondaatje experience, I did my research before attending this session.  I read the SparkNotes about this "framed story" where the 29 participants of a pilgrammage to Canterbury are requested by their host to tell several tales, with the best one winning a free meal from the other travelers.

Professor David Klausner was a dynamic speaker who was obviously passionate about his topic.  He broke down the talk into 3 parts, describing Chaucer the man, the poet, and the character within Canterbury Tales.

He gave a detailed biography on Chaucer, much of which was inferred since little was written down in those days.  Chaucer was probably educated in the prestigous St. Paul's Cathedral School (based on his excellent linguistic skills and knowledge of classic literature), served as a footman to royalty and proceeded to have a close relationship to the British monarchy throughout his life.  He worked officially in many roles as an administrator (tax collector, manager of royal estates), but also translated literary works into English.  At one point, he may have been the official poet laureate to the crown. 

In Canterbury Tales, (as well as other works such as "Book of the Duchess"), Chaucer wrote himself in as a character (in this case the narrator), usually depicted as a bumbling fool for comedic effect.

In the introduction, Chaucer the narrator describes the "palmers", who come from various occupations and economic classes (including a knight, a miller, a cook, and multiple religious characters such as nuns, a monk, a friar). Through these character portraits, and through the stories that each person tells, Chaucer the poet provides biting, critical commentary on the English society of the 14th century, especially directing his disdain towards the Church.   In many cases the personality of the storyteller is cleverly reflected as well in his tale.  A monk who is described as a bore tells such a monotonous story that he is urged to stop.

In discussing Canterbury Tales and profiling a couple of the pilgrims, Professor Klausner read passages from it, in a lilting English accent, forcing us to listen carefully to try to pick up the obscure Medieval terminology.

Chaucer couched his criticism in sarcasm as he described the Prioress, a highly ranked nun in a priory.  He "praises" her refinement and good table manners, and describes her expensive wardrobe and jewelry, her use of French (but not the French "of the court") and love of animals.  What he does not mention is any sense of humble piety and while he calls her "charitable", her story belies this characterization.  The Prioress tells the nastiest, anti-Semitic tale about Jews murdering Christian children and being punished through torturous means.
Chaucer's depiction of the "Wife of Bath" is wickedly humourous.  A lusty, portly woman, she has been married five times although it is hinted that she has had many affairs.  She met her fifth husband, a much younger, handsome man, at the funeral of her fourth.  She expounds the benefits of having the wife hold the upper hand in a marriage (which she obviously does in all of hers).  Her story supports this premise - a Knight who rapes the queen's handmaiden is sent out in punishment to find out what women want most.  An ugly hag agrees to tell him if he promises to marry her.  It turns out women want control of their marriages and their own lives (I could have told you that!).  The hag then gives him a choice.  She can be beautiful and unfaithful to him or remain ugly and faithful.  Learning the lesson, he allows her to choose what is best and she rewards him by being both beautiful and faithful (husbands, are you listening?)

Professor Klausner spoke for almost 2 hours non-stop but the animated, interesting way in which he approached his topics kept us fascinated for the entire period.  In lesser hands, this could have been a very long and tedious talk.  Instead I learned so much about Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, 14th Century England and the literature of that time.

Upcoming talks that I've registered for include discussions on Shakespeare's Henry V and Macbeth, in context of their stagings at the Stratford festival.  There will also be a talk by this year's Giller Prize winner Esi Edugyan on her book Half-Blood Blues. 

These library events are a great way to gain interesting insight into literature.  It's too bad I've come to appreciate them just as Mayor Ford is trying to cut the library budget.  Hopefully he has been thwarted by the Margaret Atwood debacle and we will be able to continue to benefit from future programs.