Saturday, December 20, 2014

Theatre: Curtains

Feeding my life-long love of musical theatre, I have seen innumerable live musical performances over the years, mostly in Toronto but also a few on Broadway and in London's West End.  It has gotten to the point where I have watched some of the old standbys, such as Man of La Mancha, Fiddler on the Roof or Les Miserables, so many times that I am reluctant to spend more time or money to revisit them again.  It is therefore particularly thrilling for me when I get an opportunity to enjoy a new (for me anyways) musical that I have not seen before.

Recently, I watched the musical Curtains for the first time.  Curtains was nominated for multiple Tony Awards in 2007, with David Hyde Pierce (of TV show "Frasier" fame) winning the prize for best actor.  It was written by Kander and Ebb, the duo better known for the iconic musicals Chicago and Cabaret.

Curtains is a musical comedy set in an off-Broadway theatre where the talentless leading lady of a musical Western called "Robbing Hood of the Old West" is murdered during the opening night curtain call.  The entire cast and crew of the show are considered suspects, as police detective Frank Cioffi arrives to investigate.  He is distracted by his own fascination with musical theatre and his admiration for the performers, taking a particular shine to young ingénue Nikki Harris.

 In considering the musical numbers for Curtains, the songs for the "show within a show" (Robbin' Hood) seemed relatively weak and mundane, possibly deliberately so, since that show was supposed to be a flop.  By contrast, the songs that dealt with the interactions of the theatre company behind the scenes, including the fallout of the murder and subsequent investigation, were witty, humorous, touching and inspired.

In my favourite song, "What Kind of Man", the producer, song writers and major investor of the show lamented the scorching reviews they received, lambasting the critics by asking "What kind of man would want a job like that? Who could be jerk enough?  Hard up for work enough?  To want a job like that?"  Then when they suddenly found a favourable review, the refrain hilariously switched to "What kind of genius has a mind like that?".  The lyrics of this song come closest to matching the verbal gymnastics of Stephen Sondheim, by using and rhyming with words like "excoriated" and "perspicacious".  I was amazed that the singers could actually enunciate these big words in tempo.

The rendition of Curtains which I watched was mounted by the 2014 graduating class of the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts, a non-profit institution providing "Triple Threat" performing arts training in singing, dancing and acting.  Judging by the stellar triple threat performances across the board by the cast of Curtains, the Randolph Academy has fostered a batch of future theatre stars.  In particular, I was impressed by the vocal and acting abilities of Tyler East who played Detective Frank Cioffi, Avery Dupuis and Luis daSilva who played songwriters and ex-spouses Georgia Hendricks and Aaron Fox, and Lindsay Frederick who played Producer Carmen Bernstein.

There were some interesting staging choices for this show, especially in the song "He Did It".  The detective  had sequestered the cast in order to conduct his investigation, resulting in them all sleeping overnight in the theatre.  With the stage dimly lit, various cast members tiptoed around in their pajamas and made guesses as to who was the murderer, eventually singing in tandem "He did it ... She did it ... They did it ... I'm sure!".  Behind them, linen sheets were hung vertically from a string to represent beds.  The remaining cast members peeked their heads out from behind the sheets, shining flashlights onto their faces to create an eerie effect like that of a camper telling a ghost story by a camp fire.  It definitely set the right mood for the song.

The musical accompaniment was provided by an on-stage band that consisted of two pianists and a percussionist.  In several scenes within Curtains, songwriter Aaron Fox wheeled out a piano and tried to compose a song.  While he actually played a few bars on his piano, the actual music was coming from the band's pianos.  This is very similar staging to the musical Marry Me A Little which played at the Tarragon theatre.

The Randolph Academy's version of Curtains ended with a final encore where the cast re-purposed a refrain from the song "Show People".  The audience was encouraged to pass on their "show programs" and spread the word about the show, but were cautioned not to give away the ending or "It May Be Curtains .. For You!".  This reprise provided the perfect ending for the show and I wonder if it was improvised specifically by this group, since I have not found mention of it in the cast recording, synopsis or any write-ups about the musical. 

Curtains was a delightful and entertaining show to add to my long list of musical theatre viewing pleasures.  It had many memorable songs, an interesting plot, and some corny jokes and clever puns that were delivered with aplomb and great comedic timing by the group of very talented young actors.  In addition to the performances, this was a very professionally mounted production with excellent costumes, sets, lighting and musical accompaniment.  I look forward to watching more productions by the alumni of the Randolph Academy of Performing Arts.

**Special thanks to Raph Nogal Photography for allowing the use of his beautiful photographs of the Randolph Academy production of Curtains.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Theatre: Bakelite Masterpiece

The Bakelite Masterpiece is an entertaining two-hander based on the true story of Dutch painter and forger Han van Meegeren, who was arrested after World War II for collaborating with the Nazis by selling them a Vermeer painting Christ With Adulteress, considered to be a Dutch national treasure.  The painting eventually came into the possession of Nazi leader Hermann Goring, who was in competition with Hitler to determine who had the best art collection.  Van Meegeren claimed he was innocent and had actually tricked the Nazis by selling them a forgery which he had personally created.  To prove his assertion, he painted a second "Vermeer" Jesus among the Doctors in court during his trial.

In adapting these events for the stage, playwright Kate Cayley started out with eight characters, but eventually reduced them down to two–van Meegeren and Geert Piller, a Jewish art historian turned Dutch prosecutor tasked with interrogating and eliciting a confession from the accused collaborator.   Having Piller's character personify the collective feelings of pain, loss, guilt and anger felt by the Dutch people also served to personalize the story.  Geert suffered her own tragedies during the Holocaust, so her quest for justice and retribution were as much personal as they were about fulfilling her public duty.  She also wanted a scapegoat to present to the Dutch people, so that they could heal and feel that vengeance had been served.  In her mind, the execution of van Meegeren would serve this purpose.

Piller was convinced that the Vermeer sold by van Meegeren to the Nazis was authentic, since she was present at the unveiling and wept at its beauty when she saw it.  She pontificated on what constituted art, what made a painting a "Vermeer" and how difficult it would be to replicate. Hans van Meegeren countered with chemical and technical explanations of how he faked the age of the painting.  Starting with a canvas from the same period, van Meegeren used the same badger hair paint brushes and mixed paints that matched those used by Vermeer.  He applied Bakelite plastic to harden the paint, baked the painting in an oven and rolled it with a cylinder to cause the paint to crack and appear aged.  Since in the play his original forgery was destroyed at the end of the war and could not be analyzed, he offered to paint a new "Vermeer" with Pillar as the model.

As with most two-hander plays, the power is in the dialogue and The Bakelite Masterpiece was no different (although Pillar provided some power moments of stillness and silence as well).  The sparring between the two protagonists grew more and more passionate as each revealed his true motivations, while the monologues were layered with double meanings. van Meegeren compared himself to Lucifer, trying to trick God (Goring? a strange analogy), to see if he could get away with it and to prove that he was as talented as the masters.  In describing the unrest of the Dutch people, Pillar spoke of women who prostituted themselves to the Nazis being punished by having their heads shaved in the town square.  Parallels seemed to be drawn between this scenario and the one depicted in the forged Vermeer, where Christ stared down the masses who wanted to stone the adulteress and said "He that is without sin among you, let him be the first to cast a stone".

The set design and lighting was very effective in supporting and providing the proper atmosphere for the plot.  The entire play took place within van Meegeren's cell, which was dimly lit and claustrophobic for the most part.  But when he positioned Pillar to sit at a table by a small window, the faint shaft of light resonating on her gave the feeling of a Vermeer painting.  At the beginning of the play, the objects of the set such as a table, chairs, easel and painting utensils were overturned and scattered across the stage.   As the plot progressed, van Meegeren would pick up the required pieces to proceed with the current scene.  So a table and two chairs were positioned for the interrogation scene, while the easel and paint supplies were retrieved when he prepared to paint.  By the end of the play, most of the set had been up-heaved again, bringing us full circle so that the original set arrangement now acted as a harbinger for things to come.

There was an interesting footnote towards the end of the play that implied van Meegeren's forgeries were not very good.  At the time, they were accepted because there were not many real Vermeers to compare against, the techniques for detecting forgery were less advanced, but most importantly, people wanted or even needed to believe.  Goring desperately wanted a Vermeer in his collection because Hitler had one in his.

In the Talkback period after the show, the producers were asked what the actor playing van Meegeren actually painted on the canvas, since we never saw the results.  We now know the answer but were sworn to secrecy :)  They also discussed how various scenes and moments of transition were blocked as if for portraiture.  So it is like the entire play itself attempted to present itself like a painting.  One patron thought it was interesting that van Meegeren chose "Christ and the Adulteress" as the topic of his forgery, since there is debate as to whether the passage of text in the Bible describing this scene was itself a later interpretation–aka "a forgery".

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Theatre: Helen Lawrence

Every once in a while, I watch a theatre production that is so innovative, unique and entertaining that it resonates with me long after the viewing.  The multi-media, film noir inspired play, Helen Lawrence, provided such an experience. 

Subtitled "Vancouver Confidential", in reference to the classic James Ellroy noir novel "L.A.Confidential", the plot revolves around a blond femme fatale (the titular Helen Lawrence), who arrives in post-WWII Vancouver falsely accused of murdering her husband and out for revenge against her ex-lover.  Sub-plots include corrupt police officers on the take, two brothers feuding over ownership of a speakeasy, a hooker trying to escape her lot, and a down-on-his-luck war veteran trying to hang on to his marriage and recoup his gambling debts.

But the plot and even the strong acting takes a back seat to the technological marvel which made this show so fascinating and memorable.  The actors perform in front of a blue screen, interacting with a sparse set that includes a few chairs and some props that represent a bed, a table and a hotel lobby counter.  Cast members not in a scene take over the roles of cameramen who film the action in both long shots and closeups using three cameras positioned at the front of the stage.  Through special effects magic, the live action is superimposed real-time on top of pre-filmed images of elaborate sets representing seedy parts of 1948 Vancouver including the lobby, office and guest room within a hotel, a shanty town, a high speed moving train and more.  The result is a fully integrated black and white film-noir "movie" which is projected onto a transparent giant screen that is lowered at the edge of the stage, in front of the camera operators and the actors.

The experience was mind-boggling as the audience watched a performance that was part theatre and part cinema at the same time.  The integration of the background scenery with the actors in the foreground was simply amazing and happened right before your eyes.  Looking through the screen, you could faintly see the actors standing or sitting in chairs on an otherwise empty stage.  But when you looked back at the front screen, you would see beautifully designed backgrounds that blend in perfectly with the the plot, the era and the noir atmosphere of the play.  It was also interesting to watch the camera operators as they moved around or crouched to get the perfect angle for their shots. 

It was difficult to decide whether to concentrate on the "movie screen" or on the live actors.  I found it most illuminating when I switched between the two, watching what the actors were really doing and what props they were actually interacting with, then quickly switching to the screen to see the end results.  This was like witnessing the magic behind a special effects movie being filmed, and watching the finished product at the same time.

I had two previous theatre experiences that can be compared to what Helen Lawrence accomplished.  The first was Puppet Up!, the live puppet performance where the puppeteers and their puppets were clearly seen on stage, but a filmed version only showed the puppets.   The second was the filming of a live musical performance of the recent London production of From Here to Eternity, which was then shown at the cineplex movie theatres as a movie. This process merged the spontaneity of a live theatre experience with the camera angles and close ups of a movie.  Helen Lawrence used concepts from both these shows and then took it to the next level.

Following this enthralling performance, a post-show talk with some of the Helen Lawrence actors gave us some insight into the process of rehearsing for these roles.  None of the actors were professional camera operators and it took over a month working with the director of photography to learn about angles, field of vision, zooming and other tricks of the trade.  It was challenging yet thrilling for the actors who had to mix theatre techniques of broad gestures and projecting to the audience, with film techniques including the subtlety of facial reactions during closeup shots.  "It stretched every muscle of an actor" was a common refrain.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Nuit Blanche 2014

This year, Nuit Blanche shifted west into Chinatown, away from the Financial District. There were also more exhibits further south, around the Roundhouse Park and Fort York areas.  It made for a nice change of pace to be able to explore different neighbourhoods and have new backdrops for the annual all-night art exhibitions.  The following were some of the highlights from my night out:

My favourite exhibit was Garden of Renova, which used brightly coloured Renova toilet paper to create beautiful designer dresses.  I look forward to the Renova display at each Nuit Blanche since they always have something fun and creative to show.

In the heart of Chinatown on Spadina Avenue, a couple installations could be viewed at the same time.  First there was Made in China, a sculptural tower of clothing, three stories high, made up of garments donated by the local  community.  Then, emanating into the sky from behind the buildings were 7 rays of laser lights that created the Global Rainbow.  The light show resulted in a rainbow that spanned between Chinatown and the CN Tower.

In Roundhouse Park, Holoscenes provided the most fascinating performance art installation of the night.  A man was enclosed in an aquarium-like glass case that repeatedly filled and then emptied of (seemingly warm?) water.  With him in the glass case was a blanket and pillow which he manipulated, wrestled with and floated around with when the water level is high.  As the water started to subside, he swam to the top to get a breathe of air, and then tried to get into a sitting or sleeping position.  The water seemed to rise and fall minute by minute.  Just watching him was exhausting and I wondered how long he had to perform before his turn was up.

Some of the exhibits which were the most fun were the ones that we were able to participate in or interact with.  Many of these were hard to access since they were also usually the more popular events, resulting in long lineups and wait times.

We did "get tested for viral contagion" as part of the HalfLife performance, which involved allowing agents, wearing hazmat suits and an orange glowing contraption on their heads representing viruses, to dab us with UV reactive ink markers.  Then they passed out little UV flashlights, which were to be shone on the "tested" area, revealing bright florescent yellow spots.  All the "infected" people were supposed to reconvene at Nathan Phillips Square at midnight to be "quarantined", but by then, we were too tired to do this.

At OCAD University, the participants formed the art itself, as our shadows were projected onto a wall in multiple colours.  People were having fun waving and making shadow puppets in the air. With Shy Lights, you ran around trying to chase spot lights shone from a tall building above, but the lights danced away just as you get close to them.  Whoever was manipulating the lights must have been having fun frustrating the people below.

In many instances, the long lineups scared us away from some fascinating-looking exhibits.  Rather than waiting, we just walked by and took a photo from afar.  This was the case for Walk Among the Worlds, where you could walk through archways made up of 7000 beach balls with maps of the earth printed on them. AMAZE was a labyrinth filled with light and sound, and the Screaming Booth, allowed you to go in and vent your frustrations with the world.

Instead we opted for sculptural or video installations out in the open, where there were no lineups and you could just walk up and take a quick look.  Wild Air Vision Electro featured an artist spray-painting a Subaru Legacy vehicle, turning it into a psychedelic work of art.  In the spirit of P.T.Barnum circus freak shows,  8th Wonder consisted of an octopus-like creature with an video-driven evil eye while musicians play eerie music at its base.  Gap Ecology tried to bring the Amazon Forest to downtown Toronto by using cherry-picker lifts to hoist large palm trees overhead.

Black Sun featured a really cool video of a wrecking ball that appeared to swing in space, ready to destroy the building in front of it, while By Means of a Sigh showed a looping video of two people blowing bubblegum bubbles so large that they touched before bursting.

Although there were still the usual cheesy exhibits that made you scratch your head and think either "huh?!?" or "meh...", I thought this year had more interesting projects than the previous few years.  As always, some of the best displays were not officially part of Nuit Blanche, but just vendors or artists who decided to do their own thing to take advantage of the hoards of people walking by.  The Malabar Costume Shop did the best job of this, providing a fun-filled costumed exhibition while generating great advertising for the upcoming Halloween season.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Theatre: A Tender Thing

The play "A Tender Thing" by Ben Power re-imagines the lives of Romeo and Juliet, had they not died as star-crossed lovers in their youth.  Instead, they got married, had a child together, and now are dealing with aging and illness in their twilight years.  What makes the play unique is that despite the new parameters and dynamics of the relationship of these legendary lovers, the dialogue is still mostly sourced from the original Shakespeare play, with a few lines from some of Shakespeare's sonnets.  Power has taken lines from different acts and scenes throughout the play, often spoken by different characters, and re-purposed them to form a new flow of text that is amazingly fitting to the new narrative.

In this revised plot-line, Romeo and Juliet are still deeply in love, but Juliet is seriously ill and Romeo has been acting as her caregiver.  Many of the lines from the famous balcony scene are spoken in an altered order, mixed in with Juliet's speech while awaiting her wedding night with Romeo, as an illustration of the couple's enduring love.  Romeo's fear losing his wife to illness results in bad dreams of her death, which he describes using the re-purposed text of the Nurse describing Tybalt's death ("a bloody piteous corpse; Pale, pale as ashes..") to which Juliet replies with nonsensical ramblings about dreams, using Mercutio's Queen Mab speech.

As Juliet becomes sicker, her mind wanders as she recalls their dead child Susan, taking over the Nurse's lines about her own child from the original play.  It gets to the point where Juliet asks Romeo to help end her suffering, putting into use lines about dying, drinking poison and finding an apothecary from the scenes where Juliet fakes her own death, and when Romeo goes to kill himself when he believes that Juliet is really dead.  The original lark and nightingale discussion from when Juliet is trying to prolong her time with Romeo before he is banished, takes on a whole new meaning in A Tender Thing, when Romeo tries to prolong his time with ailing Juliet before ending her life.

Comparing the text from A Tender Thing (which I found in the Toronto Reference Library) to that of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet accentuated what a masterpiece Ben Power has created.  In one sequence of dialogue from Scene 2 of A Tender Thing, Power took lines spoken by Friar Laurence, the Nurse, Montague, Romeo, Juliet, Benvolio, Mercutio and Capulet, coming from acts and scenes all throughout the source play.

The title for the play comes from a phrase originally used by Mercutio and Romeo when discussing Rosaline, and now spoken by Juliet and Romeo, when debating whether love is "a tender thing" or "too rough, too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn".

The two actors of this Soulpepper production were perfectly cast as the older versions of Romeo and Juliet.  Nancy Palk and Joseph Ziegler are a real life couple who met in their 20s in theatre school and "fell in love while doing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet".  Their pairing exudes a genuine level of comfort and love that comes from being married for the last 35 years and frequently acting together. This attractive couple has aged well and perfectly fit my image of what the romantic leads for the aging versions of Romeo and Juliet would look like.  Palk's Juliet is frail, lithe and ethereal while Ziegler's Romeo is virile and dashing. 

The lighting and music worked well to set the mood of the play.  I was not as fond of the set design, which consisted of a bed (around which most of the action took place), an arm chair and a tall pile of books (that distracted me but never came into play).  The exit from the bedroom looked like a closet to me, so I spent some time in the beginning wondering why Romeo went to hide in the closet.

Overall, this was an impressive play that I would have appreciated even more, had I been more familiar with the source Romeo and Juliet text prior to watching it.  Now that I've done my research, perhaps I need to watch A Tender Thing again.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Movie: TIFF 2014

For TIFF 2014, I watched 29 movies in 11 days for an average of 3 movies per day plus two preview movies before the festival officially started.  These 31 movies were a new record for me and I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew.  Compared to last season, this year's festival seemed to include many more movies that appealed to my husband and I, which made picking the candidates very easy, but narrowing down and scheduling the final picks quite difficult.  After the first pass of reviewing the movies' synopsis, we had over 50 contenders on our "short"-list that either one or both of us considered watching.

The scheduling exercise involved ensuring that there was no overlaps and sufficient times between movies.  This included not only the movie run-time plus the Question and Answer (Q&A) session if available, but also the wait time in the line-ups to get into the theatres (usually 1 hour or more to get the seats of our choice - 2 seats together, not too close to the screen but close enough to take photos of the movie stars), plus travel time to get between theatres that could be as far as 3.5km apart.  There was also the consideration of which screening to go to for each movie.  Attending the first screening almost guarantees your chance of seeing the director and possibly actors of the movie and receiving a Q&A session.  The chances diminish if you attend the second screening and are practically nil by the third and last screening.  So where possible, we tried schedule first screenings for films with topics that would provide interesting discussions, or had good stars in the cast.  This logistic challenge was greatly aided by my favourite tool, the trusty spreadsheet with its filtering and colour-coding capabilities.

While it would be unrealistic to expect all 31 of my picks to be winners, this year even the relatively "bad" ones were not horrible.  I did not get that "I've just wasted 2 hours of my life that I can never get back" feeling from previous years. And there were many more movies that I thoroughly enjoyed including a good mix of smaller films, foreign language films, documentaries and mainstream Hollywood fare.  The following are some of my favourite movies of 2014.

The movie I was most looking forward to seeing was The Last 5 Years and I was not disappointed.  The Last 5 Years is the movie adaptation of one of my favourite musicals by composer Jason Robert Brown.  Entirely through song, it tells the story of the doomed relationship of struggling actress Cathy and up-and-coming author Jamie.  One of their major issues is poignantly summarized by Jamie in a song where he sings " I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy I will not lose because you can't win."

With alternating solos, Cathy starts at the end of their relationship and moves backwards towards the beginning when they first meet, while Jamie sings chronologically from the beginning until the end.  In the theatre production, Cathy and Jamie are never on stage at the same time, except for when their timelines meet in the middle and they get married, and also at the end when Cathy is glowingly saying goodbye after their first date while Jamie is sadly saying goodbye to their union.

The movie, starring Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect) and Jeremy Jordan (Smash), is a brilliant adaptation whose settings and visuals perfectly captured the images that I envisioned while listening to the soundtrack.  Unlike the theatre version, Cathy and Jeremy are in the scenes of each other's solos, interacting and reacting to what is being sung to them.  The time jumps are made obvious not only by the tone and lyrics of the songs, but through clothing, hairstyles, colours and lighting.  The happy scenes representing the beginning of the relationship are brightly lit with the characters wearing rich, vibrant colours.  Towards the end of the relationship, both the lighting and the clothes become dark and somber.

In the final scene that depicts both Jamie at the end and Cathy at the beginning, there is contrasting lighting to represent the two timelines. Jamie sits in a darkly lit room writing a goodbye letter, while through the window, you can see Cathy standing outside the apartment on a bright sunny day.  The point of view switches to Cathy waving goodbye after their first date, but through the darkened window, you see Jamie at the desk writing his letter.

In the Q&A following the world premiere screening, the director commented that he had to stay as faithful as possible to the source material, since theatre aficionados are as fanatic as Comicon geeks and would not stand for tinkering with their beloved musical.  Composer and movie collaborator Jason Robert Brown was also at the Q&A and talked about how he insisted on not having any of his songs changed or cut, especially one called Schmuel that was particularly challenging to film.  Having the perspective of both the director and the original composer made this a very special Q&A session.

The U.K. film Pride is a heart-warming tale based on actual events of the lengthy miners' strike that occurred in 1983 during the Margaret Thatcher regime.  A group of London-based gays and lesbians decided to show solidarity and raise money for the miners, whose plight they empathized with since they had the same experiences of being persecuted and harassed by the police.  The group "Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners" (LGSM) ended up raising more money than any support group and picked one small Welsh community to donate the funds to.  The movie describes how these two groups came together and overcame fears and prejudices in order to develop a mutual understanding and trust of each other, leading to some life-long friendships.  This movie is funny, touching and all the more poignant since it really happened.

Pride's Q&A session was especially insightful because it was attended not only by the director and technical staff, but also by three of the actual people who were portrayed in the movie. They were two members of LGSM, plus one of the wives of the miners, who showed leadership during the strike and eventually became a Labour member of Parliament.  It was interesting hearing them talk about the gay rights movement back then, and to get their perspective on how things have changed since.  They all agreed that while great strides have been made, there still is a ways to go.

The German film Labyrinth of Lies is also based on historic events.  It is a thriller dealing with the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of the mid 1960s.  While Auschwitz trials were held in Poland just after WWII, none occurred in Germany until decades later.  In fact, it was surprising to learn that just over a decade after the second World War, most Germans did not know any details about what happened in Auschwitz.  The overriding sentiment of the time was that the past should be left buried and that Germany should be allowed to move on and heal.

Watching Labyrinth of Lies quite illuminating, as was the Q&A.  There was as much discussion on the historical and political events and implications as there were about the making of the movie.  Being one generation removed from the events, the interviewees were all well educated about the Holocaust, including being taught the history in school, watching movies about it and visiting the camps.  So they also were shocked to find out that this was not the case right after the war.  The director spoke of their research into the "national narrative" of those times, which was "We need to draw a line on the past.  We lost the war; let's try to look ahead and build the future".  No one spoke of what happened, not the perpetrators, not the victims, not the onlookers.  When asked about how much of the movie was based on fact, we learned that the State Attorney General Fritz Bauer, who championed the cause, and Thomas Gnielka, the reporter who brought forth the initial evidence, were based on real people.  The cases in the lists of victims discussed were real, and the last sentence of the movie were the actual words spoken by the court judge at the start of the trials.  However  the hero of the movie, the handsome, passionate young prosecutor who doggedly pursued evidence of Nazi war crimes, plus his love interest were added for dramatic purposes. 

The Australian comedy The Little Death is a hysterically funny film whose title is based on the French term "la petite mort" which is a euphemism for orgasm.  It cycles between vignettes of five couples, each dealing with an unusual sexual predilection.  Rowena discovers that she is only aroused when her partner Richard is crying, and so she finds different ways to trigger his tears including constantly reminding him about his recently deceased father, hiding his beloved dog, and making him chop onions.  Dan and Evie try to spice up their marriage with sexual role-play, but Dan gets too invested in his roles. When they "play doctor", Dan "diagnoses" Evie with Hepatitis C, basically killing any romantic mood between them.  Monica works at a "Deaf Relay Chat" centre where she uses sign language to converse with deaf clients and then passes the information verbally to non-deaf recipients.  Hilarity ensues when Sam wants her to call a phone-sex worker.  Phil only responds to his wife when she is asleep and takes to spiking her tea with sleeping pills and then wooing her while she is unconscious.  Maeve has a rape fantasy which her boyfriend Paul tries to fulfill by setting up fake rape scenarios.  When he first hears her request, Paul thinks that Maeve wants him to rate her, and declares that she is a solid 10.  He is horrified when she clarifies what she actually wants. There is actually very little nudity in this movie that is all about sex.  The director (who also plays Paul) felt it was unnecessary since simply talking about sex is so much more powerful.

The Canadian psychological thriller Elephant Song is based on a play of the same name by Nicolas Billon.  A doctor in a psychiatric hospital has gone missing and his patient Michael is the last person he saw before his disappearance.  His colleague, Dr. Green, is sent to question Michael, who is highly intelligent, manipulative and claims to know what happened to his doctor.  A verbal cat and mouse mind game ensues as Dr. Green tries to find the truth.  The movie plays out like a tense mystery in a dimly lit setting that is reminiscent of One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest.  It is difficult to decide when Michael is lying and whether he is the victim or the perpetrator of some crime, or just plain crazy.  Quebec director and actor Xavier Dolan (J'ai tué ma mère) is excellent in his chilling portrayal of Michael.  He seems to be making a career of playing gay men with "mommy issues".

Force Majeure is a Swedish drama set in a ski resort where a couple with two small children are vacationing.  The start of the film alternates between sweeping, majestic scenery of the French Alps as the family ski together, and mundane, repetitive scenes including brushing of teeth and sleeping in the chalet apartment.  Everything changes when a scary event puts the father's sense of manhood and the expected male role as protector of the family into question.  The rest of the film deals with the aftermath of the father's actions (or inaction) as the family dynamics are shattered.  An interesting scene at the end of the movie compares how the mother reacts in her own moment of fear and crisis, and how different the reactions are to her actions as opposed to the earlier ones of the father.  As the director commented in the Q&A, "The expectations of a man is to stand up for his family when there is a sudden threat, while the expectations of a woman is to take care of the family in the longer term.  If she is drawn away by her emotions, it is OK that she got scared in the moment.  For a man, this is not acceptable."  Force Majeure is a quiet movie with beautiful cinematography and a very interesting theme that comments on social mores and expectations.

While it is always great that the Toronto International Film Festival allows us to see smaller, foreign movies that we may not have the opportunity to watch in the regular cinemas, it is also fun to watch a few Hollywood movies, especially if we get to see and hear from the director and stars in the Q&A.

This year, we saw Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson in Learning to Drive, a sweet movie about a devastated divorcee who learns to take control of her life again as she learns how to drive and befriends the driving instructor.  When the director is asked in the Q&A why she cast Ben Kingsley as a Sikh when he was not one, she replied that Ben Kingsley was a great actor and if she was making a film about a chair, she would have cast Ben Kingsley as the chair as well.

Chris Evans (Captain America) directs and stars with Alice Eve in Before We Go, a delightfully refreshing romantic comedy that does not follow the traditional "boy meets girl-boy loses girl-boy gets girl back" trope.  Nick is a musician who comes to New York for an audition.  He meets a frantic Brooke, who is desperate to get home to Boston before morning, but misses the last train after having her purse stolen.  Together, they wander around Manhattan through the night, trying different schemes to raise enough money to get her home.  Along the way, they develop a friendship, find out each other's back stories and help each other with respective problems.  Chris Evans does a great job as a first time director.  He talked about wanting to capture special little memorable moments throughout the film and he certainly succeeds in doing so.

Simon Pegg stars as the suave, slick, but slightly smarmy and goofy assassin in the Australian action comedy Kill Me Three Times.  The large cast also includes Teresa Palmer and Luke Hemsworth, whose features and deep blue eyes clearly identify him as the lesser known brother to Liam (Hunger Games) and Chris (Thor).  The plot of the assassin hired to kill a cheating wife is told three times, with each iteration revealing more information that clarifies the story and changes previous interpretations. This is a fun movie with twists and turns that keep things interesting.

The Imitation Game has all the makings of an Oscar contender including being a biopic set during World War II and a great performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as mathematical genius Alan Turing, who helped break the Germans' Enigma code. The director has talked about the painstaking attention to authenticity and accuracy in the story, and the period details of the set and costume designs.  He has said in multiple interviews that rather than being "based on a true story", the credits should have said "this was a true story".  They filmed at the actual boy's school that Turing went to, as well as at Bletchley Park where Turing worked for the British government on code-breaking.  The enigma machines shown in the movie were real machines from the war, and Turing's big computer in the movie was a replication of the one Turing actually built at the time.  It was gratifying that for the first time, by picking Imitation Game, we finally watched and help vote for the winner of the coveted People's Choice Award, which is often the harbinger for an Oscar Best Picture win. 

I really enjoyed This is Where I Leave You, which drew big laughs for its premise of a dysfunctional group of non-practicing Jewish siblings reuniting in their family home to "sit shiva" to mourn the death of their father.  In addition to the humorous moments, I found much of the dialogue between the bickering siblings to be quite realistic and often touching.  But this was a big Hollywood movie which ended up playing in the theatres within a week after the festival and our second showing did not have a Q&A session.  So we just paid a hefty premium to watch a movie that we could have seen for half the price at the Cineplex a few days later.  This is why we try to limit the number of these movies that we watch during TIFF, gravitating more towards movies that we otherwise may not get a chance to see.

As for the movies we didn't like that much this year, there seemed to be a trend.  Next year, we intend to be more careful when choosing Asian or French comedies and melodramas.  We realized that we either do not connect with the humour of the comedies, or found the dramas to be overly sappy and weepy.  For example, the Korean movie Confessions was described as a noir thriller but ended up being too much of a melodrama with multiple scenes involving bawling male leads.  On the other hand, the humour of the Chinese buddy road trip comedy Breakup Buddies was lost on us due to bad translations that disappeared before you could finish reading them.  And even when we could read them, we did not find the English text to be funny, despite those who understood the actual Mandarin dialogue roaring with laughter.  So it was either lost in translation or a cultural divide that could not be bridged.  Then there was the mushy French romance Three Hearts about a love triangle between two sisters and the same man.  What bugged me the most was the constant foreboding Jaws-like (da-dum, da-dum) music that played throughout the movie, and yet nothing ever happened to warrant the dramatic tension.  Watching this movie was probably the closest I came this year to wishing for a time machine to go back 2 hours in time and forget what I just sat through.

Overall though, this was a very good festival year and we were pleased with most of our picks.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Movie: Boyhood

I love director Richard Linklater's "Before" series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) which introduces a young couple in their 20s who have a chance meeting on a train, and then revisits their lives and relationships ten years later, and again ten years after that.  Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy were in their 20s when filming Before Sunrise and aged real-time with their characters in each subsequent movie.

Linklater's newly released movie, Boyhood, takes this concept to the next extreme.  With scenes filmed annually over a period of 12 years, Boyhood follows the life of Mason who ages (along with child actor Ellar Coltrane) from 5 through 18.  While films usually portray time lapses through makeup or use of different actors, in this case we watch this boy as he naturally ages and grows into a young man.  At the same time, the supporting cast including Ethan Hawke (obviously a favourite collaborator with Linklater) as the absentee father, Patricia Arquette as the single mother and Linklater's own daughter Lorelei as sister Samantha also appear throughout the movie and age year by year along side of Mason.

The concept would be merely gimmicky if Linklater was not such a strong writer of naturalistic dialogue, as he also proved in the "Before" series, which all featured lengthy conversations between the two protagonists. Boyhood provides glimpses of different stages of Mason's childhood, as you literally watch him grow up on film.  Sometimes the annual aging is so subtle that you only realize there has been a time-jump because Mason has a new hairstyle.

Based on previous family dramas, there were multiple points in the movie where one has been programmed to expect some sensational event such as a car crash, drug overdose, or teen pregnancy to occur.  There is none of that.  Other than a few episodes with drunken step-fathers, nothing overly dramatic happens.  And yet, despite a 2 hour and 45 minute running time, for some reason the movie is riveting and you are totally invested in the lives of this boy and his family.

The unique concept and directorial challenges in making this movie over such a long period of time make Linklater a favourite for Oscar contention, although its July release does seem a bit early for Oscar season.  Hopefully it will not be forgotten in the fall when the other challengers flood the theatres. 

Monday, August 04, 2014

Theatre: Best of Fringe 2014

This year we were away on vacation and missed the entire run of the Fringe Festival.  We did get home in time take part in "Best of Fringe", which features eight shows selected by a jury of producers and theatre critics as their favourites of the festival.  For the two weeks following Fringe, these shows are each given a second run of three performances at the Toronto Centre For The Arts Studio Theatre.  Tickets for the Best of Fringe shows are more expensive than Fringe, at $17.75 as opposed to the $12 during the festival, but at least we had a higher chance of enjoying these specially endorsed shows.  Of the five shows we watched, we really enjoyed three of them.

Our favourite show was "No Chance In Hell", a musical comedy about John Smith who was killed by his crazy girlfriend Chelsea and is now stuck between Heaven and Hell when the "file" on his life is misplaced. While waiting for the judgement on his final destination, he falls in love with Decadence, an envoy of the Devil, and decides to follow her back to Hell.  Once there, John re-encounters Chelsea, who is working for the Devil by creating a computer virus that will cause chaos to the systems in Heaven.  Their interaction provides one of the funniest song and dance numbers of the show, with the petite Chelsea literally flinging herself bodily at the much taller John.  Throw in a supporting cast that includes two angels dressed like gangsters in white suits and shades and a Devil wearing pajamas, a dressing gown and slippers, and hijinks ensue.  The angels try to lure John back to Heaven once they find his file, and John tries to stop the virus and rescue Decadence from Hell.   With an entertaining story, great songs with catchy tunes and good singers, No Chance in Hell is a fun show to watch.
52 Pickup, the most popular show of this year's festival with a sold-out run,  lived up to its hype.  It has a very unique gimmick to trace the relationship of a couple from their "meet-cute" beginnings to their eventual breakup and separation.  The story is split into 52 short vignettes, ranging from a few quick lines to several minutes of dialogue.  The gimmick is that for each performance, the story is told in a random order, determined by the labels written on a deck of playing cards that are tossed in the air at the beginning of the show.  The pair of actors arbitrarily pick up one card at a time, read the label and play out that scene.

Despite the jumps in timeline, the story is still very easy to follow because the dialogue is so natural and the situations are so recognizable.  It takes very strong actors to be able to quickly switch emotions as they play out, in random order, the excitement of first meeting, the happiness of being in love, the mundane or annoying moments in a relationship, anger during arguments, sadness over their breakup and regret with a touch of nostalgia when they run into each other a year later.  Accentuating the universality of the story is the choice to have four pairs of actors take turns in different performances. There are two male/female pairings, one pairing with two men and one with two women.  One would presume that the exact dialogue might vary a bit with each pairing, but the overall themes remain the same.  This amount of variation makes for an exciting show that might be fun to watch more than once.  The play is co-written by Fringe Festival veteran T.J.Dawes, who also wrote a play that was adapted into the movie "The F Word" starring Daniel Radcliffe.

Emergency Monologues is another play that uses randomness to generate a different show for each performance.  Morgan Phillip Jones has accumulated many anecdotes over his career as an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician).  He decides which ones to share with the audience by spinning his "Wheel of Misfortune".  Jones is a very skilled storyteller and his narratives range from harrowing to hilarious.  Whether he is describing forgetting the stretcher on one of his first days on the job, or his experiences with one his supervisors who "worked at his own pace", or the incident with the "Penis Guy", his stories have you enthralled and on the edge of your seat.

I'm glad we were able to enjoy a bit of this year's Fringe Festival by watching a few shows at Best of Fringe.  Looking forward to the smaller Next Stage winter Fringe festival in January.