Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Theatre: Cinderella and Peter Pan Pantomine

This Christmas season, we watched two musicals based on traditional fairy tales and classic children stories that were each given a modern, feminist spin with a message of gender equality. This has been an ongoing trend for new fairy tales (Brave, Frozen) and revivals of old ones.  To quote our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the reason is "because it's 2015".  The 1957 Rodgers and Hammerstein television version of Cinderella has been updated so that Cinderella saves Prince Topher, by helping him find his purpose in life, as much as he saves her from her wretched existence.  In the annual Ross Petty pantomime Peter Pan in Wonderland which is a mashup of the Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland stories, Wendy gets Peter to agree that she should be allowed to be the heroine in their adventures occasionally.

While the commonly known version of the Cinderella story is the 1697 one by French author Charles Perrault, who introduced the elements of the fairy godmother, pumpkin coach, glass slippers and the midnight curfew, the tale originated centuries before and has been retold for centuries after.  Variations of the basic story of the persecuted heroine finding her savior can be found across cultures, with different names for the main character and slight variations in some of the plot points.  We saw an example of how universal the tale is when we visited the Bata Shoe Museum and perused their semi-permanent exhibit titled "All About Shoes: Footwear Through the Ages".   Part of this exhibit is devoted to versions of the Cinderella footwear from various times and cultures.  There was the French glass slipper, Dutch blue and white porcelain slippers, Korean straw sandals and gilded leather shoes from ancient Egypt.

The 2008 Broadway revision of Cinderella follows the main storyline of the French 1697 version, but updates it with a series of modern twists.  In this retelling, Cinderella is still beautiful and caring but also much more spunky and intelligent, while Prince Topher is still charming, but a bit naive and clueless as to the workings of the world and his place in it.  Topher is unduly influenced by an evil advisor who tricks him into approving oppressive laws against his people.

Cinderella first meets the prince when he is passing by her cottage and she kindly offers him a drink of water without realizing who he is. Their next two meetings are at the royal balls but when she flees after the second soiree, she intentionally leaves one of her shoes to help him locate her, as opposed to accidentally doing so in the traditional narrations.  And when he finally finds her and declares his love but is unsure what to do next, she prompts "Oh, well is marriage still on the table?".

The other major deviation from the traditional plot is regarding the depiction of Cinderella's step-family.  While there is still a wicked step-mother, only one of the stepsisters (Charlotte) is wicked, while the other one (Gabrielle) is meek but compassionate towards Cinderella.  Gabrielle is secretly in love with Jean-Michel, a revolutionary who advocates for the plight of the people.  Cinderella eventually counsels Prince Topher to listen to Jean-Michel and to address the injustices being heaped upon his subjects.  So Cinderella and Topher unite more as equals who each enrich the other's life and together, they will make their kingdom a better place for their people.

Although the story has been modernized for this musical, the tunes are still from the late fifties.  Most of the songs from the original Rodgers and Hammerstein production have been retained (including "My Own Little Corner", "It's Possible", "Ten Minutes Ago", "Stepsisters Lament" and "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?") and additional songs were added by raiding the Rodgers and Hammerstein oeuvre and picking up obscure songs ("Me, Who Am I?", "There's Music In Me") whose lyrics could be fit into the story.  Accordingly, the music sounds dated and contains too many soprano solos for my taste.

The best attributes of this Broadway show are gorgeous dresses and the amazing on-stage metamorphosis of both Cinderella and the Fairy godmother from rags to splendor.  With a quick twirl and motions faster than the eye can see, their clothes seem to magically transform before us.  It took several slow-motion viewings of this performance from the 2013 Tony Awards before it became apparent what was happening.  Designer William Ivey Long won the Tony award winning for best costume design for this feat and the other luminous costumes worn by the entire cast.

Ross Petty's annual Christmas pantomime merges together the characters and stories from Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland to create Peter Pan in Wonderland.  Popularized in England in the 19th Century, pantomime is a family-oriented form of musical comedy based on a well-known fairy tale or children's story, featuring singing, dancing, slapstick comedy, cross-gendered actors and audience participation.  The crowd is encouraged to cheer rousingly for the heroes and "Boo!!!" lustily each time the villain steps on stage, engaging in call and response interactions when the villain taunts "Oh no it isn't/he didn't/..." with replies of "Oh yes it is/he did/...".

The action begins when Captain Hook tricks Wendy into traversing to Wonderland where he wants to steal the fairy dust in her locket to open a Pandora's Box-like trunk owned by the Queen of Hearts.  Peter Pan and Tinkerbum (Tinkerbell was busy) follow along to Wonderland to try and save Wendy.  The flightless Tinkerbum is played in traditional grotesque drag by Stratford Theatre cast member Dan Chameroy. Once in Wonderland, the Peter Pan and Tinkerbum are aided by Alice, the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter, who call themselves the "Guardians of Wonderland".  Before they can save Wendy and stop Hook and his sidekick Smee, they first have to deal with the Queen of Hearts and her posse of playing cards, as well as Hook's goofy minions.

While the main plot, characters, colourful costumes and sets are geared toward the kids, many of the songs and most of the jokes are aimed at entertaining the adults in the audience.  Currently popular songs are featured including Taylor Swift's Bad Blood, Bruno Mars' Uptown Funk, Meghan Trainor's Dear Future Husband and Rachel Platten's Fight Song.  Many of the jokes, including some real groaners, reference local topics and current events such as Jose Bautista's bat flip, Donald Trump's hair, and Stephen Harper's downfall (Hook was his life coach before becoming a pirate).  When Wendy falls down the rabbit hole, images flash by including the falling silhouette from Mad Men.  Pan is compared to Justin Bieber in terms of never growing up.

This year's production is extra special since it is the last time that Petty will act in the annual show.  After 20 years of playing the main villain in the pantomimes, Ross Petty has decided to step back and focus on producing the events.  Doing both has become exhausting for the 69-year-old actor and he feels it is much more important for him to concentrate on keeping the shows financially viable.  He does this by courting corporate sponsors and unabashedly referring to them in the show, either via product placement, or even video-based commercial interludes where the show stops and the ads are played.  This year's sponsors include Hilton Hotel, Sick Kids Hospital, and Toronto Star who is heavily promoting its new online Star Touch application.  Each of the ads include one or more characters from the pantomime.  The Billy Bishop Airport's sponsorship led to its new underground tunnel being featured in a major plot development for the show.  Main sponsor CIBC received both a video commercial about Tinkerbum finally getting to "fly" by using the CIBC Adventura credit card, as well as recognition for providing the gifts for the three lucky little children who were invited on stage to be part of the show.

Peter Pan in Wonderland was not as funny and the plot was not as cohesive and entertaining as the pantomime that we saw two years ago, based on The Little Mermaid.  But Peter Pan in Wonderland and Cinderella were still both fun events to attend during the Holiday season, and the children in the audiences certainly enjoyed themselves.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Art: Andy Warhol Exhibitions

Earlier this year, multiple venues participated in a Douglas Coupland exhibition that was titled "Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything", a title meant to highlight the ubiquitousness of his works.  This seems to also apply to American pop artist Andy Warhol, since there are currently dueling Warhol exhibits in progress–Andy Warhol: Stars of the Silver Screen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and Andy Warhol: Revisited at the Revolver Gallery on Bloor St. West at Bay St.

As expected, the main focus of the exhibition at TIFF Bell Lightbox is on film, movie stars and the concept of celebrity as it relates to Andy Warhol. The walls are lined with photographs of celebrities that Warhol either purchased for his personal collection or shot himself.  Included is the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe that Warhol used in the creation for his "Marilyn" screen prints.  Also on display is his collection of old movie posters, as well as movie posters for some of his own films.

Andy Warhol directed a series of weird, experimental films including hours of footage depicting his lover John Giorno sleeping (Sleep, 1964), Edie Sedgwick hanging out in the kitchen (Kitchen, 1965), and a stream of his famous friends visiting him in his New York film studio "The Factory" and sitting on his iconic  couch.  (Couch, 1964).  Scattered throughout the exhibition space are video screens hanging from the ceiling that run excerpts of selected films on a continuous loop.  The most quirky film is probably "Taylor Mead's Ass"–a 76 minute movie that focuses mainly on the actor's bare butt.   As the story goes, a critic complained that watching Mead's movies (including titles such as "The Queen of Sheba Meets Atom Man" and "Tarzan and Jane Regained .. Sort of") felt like hours of watching Taylor Mead's ass.  Warhol caught wind of this comment and complied by making the movie.

An entire room in the exhibition is dedicated to the recreation of Warhol's East 47th Street Factory film studio, which he had entirely decorated in silver including silver-toned furniture, and walls painted silver or wrapped with aluminum foil.  The colour scheme was inspired by the decor in the apartment of Warhol's friend Billy Name, and the studio came to be known as the "Silver Factory".  The one exception was a red velour couch with white cushions, where many movies were shot and parties were held.  While the actual couch was tossed when the studio closed, a reproduction has been created for this show.

Glass display cases contain Warhol memorabilia including old family photos, letters, movie props, costumes and more.  The cases are propped up by silver filing cabinets, referencing the numerous filing cabinets that were found in the Factory.  A docent-guided tour of the exhibition revealed some interesting facts about Andy Warhol, who was initially named Andrew Warhola before dropping the "a" as an adult.  He was the youngest of three children, born into a poor Czechoslovakian family who immigrated to Pittsburgh, USA.  When he was young, his mother would try to stretch out a meal by making soup out of ketchup and hot water–perhaps an experience that eventually led to his famous tomato soup can art?

The eccentric Warhol hung out at the Factory with equally strange friends and acquaintances.  Performance artist Dorothy Podber asked if she could "shoot" the five Marilyn paintings that he had just completed.  Thinking she meant to take photographs of them, Warhol acquiesced but instead, she took out a gun and shot holes through each Marilyn's forehead.  These paintings are now known as the "Shot Marilyns".  Warhol himself was shot and seriously injured in 1968 by a disgruntled female associate, feminist writer Valerie Solanis.

As you exit the show, you can choose to partake in the "Three Minute Screen Test", a ritual that Warhol frequently put his fledgling film stars through in order to ascertain their charisma on camera.  Simulating that experience, patrons are invited to sit silently for three minutes while a video camera films them.  The results are screened at the front of the exhibition and are also available for download. It is interesting to see what different people do with their three minutes. Some mug for the camera, some stare blankly, while others fidget nervously.

In the Canadian Film Reference Library on the 4th floor of the Bell Lightbox, a related free exhibit called "In Love With the Stars" is simultaneously on display.  This show features the private collections of a few avid fans that shared Andy Warhol's fascination with movie stars and celebrity.  On display is a subset of over 1000 scrapbooks collected by Edith Nadajewski over the span of 70 years from the 1920s through 1990s.  Each scrapbook includes pasted images of celebrities cut out from newspapers and magazines.  She would dedicate one or more two-page spreads on each actor, actress or movie.  A short documentary film introduces Jack Pashkovsky, a Russian, Jewish immigrant who started out sweeping floors at Twentieth Century Studios and eventually worked his way to becoming known as "The Man Who Shot Hollywood".  On display are examples of Pashkovsky's photos which captured the biggest stars of the times posing naturally for him.  He is even credited with taking the last known photo of Amelia Earhart before she disappeared.  Finally, there is a retrospective of photos taken at Toronto International Film Festival red carpets throughout the years. 

While a limited number of familiar art works related to movie stars were included in the TIFF Andy Warhol exhibit, it was not until we visited the Revolver Gallery's Andy Warhol: Revisited show that we came across a more comprehensive assemblage of Warhol's works, covering more eclectic topics that we had not seen before.  Three figures of Andy Warhol grace the window of the gallery, dressed in iconic black mock shirt and pants with their faces painted in primary colours.  Also on display are the sculptural incarnations of Warhol's obsession with commercialism and mass production–plywood boxes painted and silk-screened with common brands on them including Brillo Soap Pads, Heinz Ketchup, Kellogs Cornflakes and more.

Once inside, we see further examples of Warhol's famous sets of silk screen prints. While there are a few common-place ones of Marilyn Monroe, Chairman Mao and Elvis, most of the other subject matters are totally new to us.  For the first time, we peruse renderings of Queen Elizabeth, Vladimir Lenin, gangster John Gotti, a series of Western themed ones including General Custard and Annie Oakley, a series of commissioned "vanity" portraits of high-powered executives, and more.  In addition to the portraits, there are also sets of images of cows, shoes, trucks, camouflage patterns, and commercial products such as a Chanel perfume bottle.

Two large silver couches are placed in the middle of the gallery, which presumably refer to the "Silver Factory", even though the actual couch in that studio was red and white, as we learned in the TIFF exhibit.  A very detailed documentary on Andy Warhol is screened on two TV sets mounted on top of walls that are covered with small snapshots of the artist.  After watching the movie for over 20 minutes, we finally asked how long the documentary ran for, and found out it was 4 hours!  Even more interesting than the film are the photographs on the wall, which on closer examination depict Warhol dressed up a variety of wigs and makeup to portray different male and female personas.

Taken together, the two Andy Warhol exhibitions at TIFF Bell Lightbox and Revolver Gallery present an extensive picture of the man, his life, his works and his artistic influences and motivations.  But given how prolific and creative Warhol was, it somehow feels like we have only scratched the surface.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Gardiner Museum: Kent Monkman and 12 Trees of Christmas 2015

We went to the Gardiner Museum of Ceramics to view an exhibit by First Nations artist Kent Monkman, who is known for his modern artwork and multi-media installations that usually provide commentary on the narratives and perspectives of the Indigenous People.  We had seen examples of his works at various other museums including the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and McMichael Art Gallery.  I was curious to find out how this current show would relate to ceramics, since this is not a typical medium for Monkman.  An interesting piece was on display in a glass case prior to entering the main exhibition space.  It was Monkman's homage to Pablo Picasso's 1942 Bull's Head sculpture, which was created by attaching a leather bicycle seat to a set of handlebars to produce a bull-like image.  Monkman recreated this look in porcelain-styled ceramics, but added his own Native touches by depicting a scene of an Indian on horseback lassoing a cowboy, while a buffalo seems to look on in the background.

The main installation, entitled "The Rise and Fall of Civilization", takes up the entire third floor special exhibition space.  It depicts the period of time in the late 19th Century when over-hunting of the bison by American settlers and military almost led to its extinction.  The main focus of the exhibit consists of a rock formation where a bison is in midst of jumping/falling off the cliff, while Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, a reoccurring figure in Kent Monkman's works that acts as his drag queen alter-ego, gestures toward and draws attention to the plunging beast.  The setting represents a "buffalo jump", which Native Indians would use as a mass hunting method, by driving herds of bison over a cliff, causing their legs to shatter.  At the base of the cliff, other hunters would be waiting with spears and bows and arrows in order to finish off the animals.

At the base of the rock formation in the exhibit, semi-transparent wire sculptures depict more bison, while a mound of shattered pottery (including smashed up versions of the ceramic bull's head that we saw outside) represent the build-up of bison bones that accumulate at the base of a buffalo jump.  Painted images of various types of bison on all the surrounding walls add to the overall effect of the installation.  With long black hair and dressed flamboyantly in bright red, this rendition of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle (note the cheeky spelling of the last word!) makes it easy to see that the concept was originally inspired by Cher.  In other sculptures or paintings, Miss Chief has been known be depicted wearing 7-inch platform heels or a raccoon jock strap.  Monkman uses the image of  Miss Chief Eagle Testickle to subvert the Hollywood Indian stereotype, in order to portray "a really empowered persona ... with a lot of sexual power."

While the Kent Monkman exhibit was interesting to see, it was not substantial enough on its own to warrant a trip to the Gardiner Museum.  Luckily, also on display was the annual Christmas exhibit called "The Twelve Trees of Christmas", which are scattered throughout the three floors of the museum.  In previous years, the trees were quite traditional in terms of materials and decorations.  By contrast, this year the theme "The Joy of Creativity" led to the most fascinating and creative representations of a "Christmas Tree" that are so much fun to see.  Three of my favourite trees are found right in the first floor lobby of the museum.  Made of wire, mesh and resin, the "Aquarian Water Bearer" by Sophie DeFrancesca depicts a female form pouring water out of a jug, where the flowing liquid forms the shape of a sparkling Christmas tree. Titled "Flaneur Forever", Jennifer Carter's progressively smaller stacked umbrellas, created from silk fabric by Hermès, makes for a whimsical and colourful tree.  "The Joy of Gathering" by Jane Waterous uses neon lighting to create the star and the arms of the tree, while what looks like smushed up candy wrappers formed in the shape of little people are used for decorations.  Walking around to the other side of this display, the word Joy is spelt out in globs of paint that also look like little people when you walk close enough to see them.

The tree which I found most fascinating (and slightly creepy) is actually an animated video called "Reception" by Jenn E. Norton, depicting a series of outstretched arms and hands, formed in the shape of a Christmas tree.  As the tree rotates, the palms of the hands flex and turn to produce the open palmed gesture of receiving, followed by the palm-down gesture of giving.  One tree that I almost dismissed as too traditional and boring is the "Ukrainian Christmas Spider" tree, created by the Ukranian Museum of Canada, Ontario branch.  From afar, it looks like a standard tree with typical ornaments, but up close, you can see that the ornaments are actually hand-crafted spiders and webs in hues of gold and silver.  Reading the associated plaque, I learn that this design reflects a classic Ukranian tale about spiders who decorate a poor family's tree with silky spun webs of intricate patterns that shimmer in silver and gold colours when the sun shines upon them.  Finally, on the third floor, I liked Justin Broadbent's "Lit/Til" which is made up of two painted plywood lightning bolts, joined together to form the shape of a Christmas tree in its "negative space".  Looking through the tree, the people sitting in the restaurant on the other side appear to be the "ornaments".   Broadbent described how the lightning bolts symbolized his brainstorming for ideas that resulted in his tree.

It was fun racing up and down the stairs of the three floors to view all 12 trees.  This additional exhibit on top of the Kent Monkman installation made it an excellent trip to the Gardiner Museum.  And using the Sunlife Financial Museum and Arts Pass from the Toronto Public Library provided us with free admission.  Thank you Sunlife for this excellent perk!

There is actually at 13th tree outside of the museum.  Called "The Beacon of Joy",  designed by the curator of the Joy of Creativity show, architect Dee Dee Eustace.  It consists of a 40-foot tall white spruce tree sourced from biodegradable, Ontario-grown wood and surrounded by a circular metal enclosure which is decorated with lights and ceramic ornaments that look like luggage tags with personalized Christmas wishes written on them.  The ornaments can be purchased from the museum front-desk with proceeds going towards providing free clay workshops to needy children and youth.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Theatre: Addams Family Musical

Each year, I look forward to the musical performed by the graduating class of the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts.  Not only do these super talented triple-threat students excel at acting, singing and dancing, but they often select a relatively fresh, new musical that I have not seen before.  This year was no exception as we watched The Addams Family, based on the campy 1960s TV show.  I was first exposed to this musical when its opening number ("When You're An Addams") was performed at the 2010 Tony Awards, and subsequently bought the soundtrack, so I was thrilled to finally be able to watch a live performance of the show.

Most of the major characters from the TV show are accounted for including the parents Gomez and Morticia, their children Wednesday and Pugsley, Uncle Fester, Grandma and the zombie-like butler Lurch.  A hand even pops out from behind a curtain to represent the disembodied "Thing".  The only TV regular not represented is the hairy "Cousin Itt".  The main storyline of the musical revolves around eighteen-year-old daughter Wednesday falling in love with a "normal" boy named Lucas.  She invites Lucas and his parents Mal and Alice to dinner so that the two sets of parents can meet and hopefully approve of the besotted couple's engagement.  One of the best songs in the score aptly summarizes the main source of tension in the story, as both Wednesday and Lucas hope for a pleasant, uneventful dinner and implore their parents for "One Normal Night".

Subtle aspects of the Broadway production's plot of The Addams Family were changed once the show started its U.S. tour.  The latter version is the one that is usually performed today.  In the Broadway version,  Gomez and Morticia sing the song "Where Did We Go Wrong", as they are united in their disapproval of Wednesday's involvement with the "normal boy" who is causing their daughter to act uncharacteristically "perky, bubbly and optimistic".  The touring version changed this, making Gomez a reluctant conspirator with Wednesday in hiding the truth about her relationship with Lucas from Morticia.  This new wrinkle provides greater opportunity for dramatic conflict as well has humour.  Gomez now sings the hilarious song "Trapped" as he laments having to choose between being loyal to his daughter or his wife, while Morticia sings that there are no "Secrets" between her and her spouse–a fact that she soon learns is not true.

The Randolph Academy production of The Addams Family was excellent as usual.  Wearing stellar costumes, wigs and makeup, the family members channeled the original TV characters, while the costumes of the chorus of ghoulish dead (or undead) ancestors were innovative and unique (except for the one who looked like she was dressed in an outfit recycled from the musical Cats).  While the entire cast was good, stand-out performances were given by the two actors playing Gomez and Morticia.  They both had excellent singing voices and superb comedic timing in delivering the jokes and perfectly mimicking the silly movements, gestures and intonations of their iconic roles.  By contrast, the voice of the actress who played Wednesday was not quite as strong, and at times, it felt like she was shrieking as opposed to belting out her lines.

Performed at the Annex Theatre, much planning and choreography must have been required to allow such a large cast to roam around the relatively small space.  The actors moved in and out of the aisles and occasionally danced so close to the audience that it felt like they would fall into our laps.  The set included two stairwells that allowed the actors to use the second-floor catwalk as an extension of the stage, and a giant wall clock that opened up to reveal a window which Uncle Fester occasionally popped his head out from.

I'm looking forward to the next offerings by the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts, including their annual submission to the Fringe Festival, and the year-end show by the next graduating class.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Theatre: Butcher

We were very excited to learn that French-Canadian playwright Nicolas Billon's new play Butcher was being performed at the Theatre Centre (1115 Queen St. West).  We loved Billon's previous work, Elephant Song, which was adapted for cinema as a taut, psychological mystery/thriller that screened at TIFF in 2014.  The description of  Butcher indicates that it is in the same vein.

Like Elephant Song, the plot of Butcher takes place on Christmas Eve, leading to much discussion about what Billon has against the holiday and why he sets such dark situations on what is normally considered a festival occasion.  All the action takes place in an isolated police station, where the lone cop on duty, Inspector Lamb, is interviewing British patent lawyer named Hamilton Barnes about his relationship to a disheveled old man, wearing a Santa hat and what looks like a military uniform.  Muttering some unintelligible Slavic-sounding language, the old man was dumped at the police station with a butcher's hook attached to his jacket and a note saying "Arrest Me" along with Barnes' business card pierced through the hook.  Unable to understand what the old man is saying and what connection he has to Barnes' (who denies knowing him), Lamb calls for a translator.  As the four characters interact and delve into the truth of the old man's identity, the tension is ratcheted up more and more and the you find yourself literally on the edge of your seat.  By the end of the show, you realize that nothing is as it initially seemed.

Without giving away too much of the plot, Butcher is about genocide, its victims and perpetrators, and the concept of justice vs. revenge vs. peace.  It was serendipitous that we picked a performance where a special post-show talk was to take place.  We had a lengthy chat and Q&A session with Nicolas Billon and several special guests about the conception and creation of the play.  When Billon first came up with the idea to write this story, he immediately decided that he did not want to base it on any actual genocide or group of people, as he did not want to be exploitive, but wanted to address the issue in general.

To achieve this, he invented a country called Lavinia (named after the daughter of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus) and employed two Slavic linguistic experts to help him invent the "Lavinian language" which would have its basis on similar languages such as Slovenian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian and Macedonian.  It was fascinating listening to Christina Kramer and Dragana Obradovic talk about their process of deriving the language.  They spoke of how they wanted the words to sound authentic with the right tones, textures and root origins, yet be opaque enough not to be recognizable as part of any real language.  Using this imaginary language to describe an imaginary genocide puts a bit of distance to the descriptions of the atrocities.

Billon uses this same concept in the staging of the play where any act of brutality is obscured, either happening at the back of the stage, blocked by an actor's back or partially concealed with darkened strobe lighting and a cacophony of piercing music.  He explains that this follows the tradition of Greek tragedies where the violence happens off-stage and is only described after the fact by a messenger.  Butcher is heavily influenced by the trilogy of Greek tragedies called Oresteia which also explores the concepts of vengeance versus justice and involves the Furies, the deities that avenge injustice.

The third special guest for the talk was Ellen Elias-Bursac, a former Yugoslav War crimes tribunal translator who talked about her experiences and observations during these trials which usually involved three judges.  She described the proximity of the victims and the accused, which caused much angst and occasionally led to recanting of testimony.  She indicated that the judges did not understand the language, so hearing the evidence through translators gave them a level of separation and isolation.  This seems similar to the effect that Billon was trying to achieve in his play.

Nicolas Billon spoke of a quote that he had heard, which stated that you could either have justice or peace but not both, because peace requires compromise while to achieve true justice, there is no compromise.  Butcher is a riveting play that explores these weighty issues as well as the cycle of violence.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Theatre: Blind Date


Blind Date is a very unique play that is part improvisation and part performance art, featuring Rebecca Northan as Parisian Mimi the clown.  It starts with Mimi wearing a red clown nose and tight red dress, sitting alone at the table of a restaurant waiting for her blind date to show up.  With impeccable comedic timing, she addresses the packed room and informs us that he is 2 hours late, then polls the audience as to how long one should wait for a blind date to show up–5 minutes? 12 minutes? 30 minutes?  After 2 hours, she can safely ascertain that he is not coming.  So what to do?

Instead she will select a member of the audience to come on stage and be her blind date for the rest of the evening.  Her choice is not totally random since she has scouted out potential "victims" or candidates prior to the start of the show, by mingling with the crowd out in the lobby.  It is still not clear whether she gets agreement from her intended choice ahead of time, but the one that she selects is sitting conveniently and easily accessible towards the aisle of the second row.  A disclaimer in the program sounds almost like a legal contract indicating that by attending the show, you agree to the possibility of being picked and will not sue Northan or expect compensation for basically being the co-star in her play.

This concept is not without risks since Northan is never completely sure what type of personality she will get up on stage with her.  But by having a new stranger to interact with each night, she achieves a different show with different conversations each time, which keeps it fresh and exciting, both for her and for the audience.  For the most part, the scenes for the play are preset, but what happens within a scene is largely driven by the flow of the conversation with the blind date.  With great listening and improvisational skills, Mimi builds upon whatever is said by the date and creates a dialogue between them that sounds both natural and hilarious.  By the simple act of wearing the clown nose, Mimi provides a visual cue to remind both her blind date and the audience that what is to follow is just for laughs.

In the show that we attended, the blind date selected was a sweet and reserved man named Tai who was attending the play with his girlfriend of 3 months, Lila.  To put Tai and Lila at ease, each are given a glass of red wine (Lila's glass is handed to her in her seat).  While the main story of the blind date happens in the middle of the stage, Mimi advises that a "time out" area has been set up off to one side.  At any time, if either Tai and Lila feel uncomfortable about anything that is happening, he or she could call a time out and the action would stop while they discuss the issue.  Tai gets infinite time outs while Lila only gets one.

The initial "getting to know each other" scene happens in the French restaurant where we learn about Tai's occupation, his personality, his family and what he looks for in a girl.  One of the funniest moments occurs when he mentions that as a child, he liked to "frolick" in the outdoors, to which Mimi deftly retorts that she has never heard a grown man use that term before. To minimize the amount of time that he needs to speak, Tai peppers Mimi with open-ended questions which she responds to by launching into amusing anecdotes about her "life" and later asks her to dance.  After an extended conversation, a waiter brings the bill and Tai has to make the awkward decision of whether to actually take out his wallet or not.  He decides to mime the payment, to which the waiter takes offense and indicates that they only accept cash or credit, not pretend money.  At that point, Mimi suggests that they "dine and dash", leading nicely to the next preset scene.  I have read that in another performance, the date actually did lay out some real cash (which hopefully he got back afterwards).

Two chairs positioned side-by-side are used to represent Mimi's car and the couple mime opening the door, ducking to not hit their heads as they get inside and putting on their seat belts.  Now might be a good time to note that the lighting and sound effects (e.g. sound of a car door closing, beep when the door is locked) are improvised on the spot based on the course of the action and are executed to perfection.  More hijinks occur in this segment when the pair are pulled over by a policewoman and first questioned about the dine and dash case, and then each given a sobriety test.  Tai and Mimi have taken their glasses of wine with them with they left the restaurant.  One of the jokes that probably gets repeated in every show involves Mimi hiding the two wine glasses under the hem of her dress and later, asking Tai to reach in to retrieve them, while apologizing that they are now a bit "warm".

The third setting is at Mimi's uncle's apartment where the two sit together on a couch.  In what is probably another humorous sequence repeated for every show, Tai is left alone on stage for an embarrassingly long time while Mimi goes to fetch drinks.  Upon her return, Mimi tries to ramp up the intimacy, subtly at first but more and more forcefully while Tai firmly but politely tries to deflect her advances.  It is as if she is trying to elevate Tai's level of unease so that either he or Lila will invoke the time out, but they do not.  Finally Mimi invokes the time out herself, where there is a discussion about just how far the date would go, and what would be the final scene.  The audience is allowed to vote on two potential scenarios and we choose to see where Mimi and Tai are 5 years into the future.

For the final scene of our show, all hell breaks loose in terms of craziness as 5 years from now, Mimi and Tai are living together, with Mimi extremely pregnant and about to give birth.  The show ends really sweetly with Mimi complimenting Tai on his virtues, but especially his bravery for trying something that most men would not consider.

This show is very funny and interesting to watch.  It is fascinating to imagine which parts Northan had to improvise on the spot, and where and how the narrative could have changed depending on what the blind date did or said. Reading some reviews about other performances, it was amazing to learn the varied number of endings that were described. We arrived to the theatre too late for us to witness Mimi the Clown scouting out her potential dates, but if we ever get the chance to watch this again, this is something I would definitely like to see.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Theatre: The Play's The Thing

The Play's The Thing is a three-act play written in the 1920s by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár and adapted into English by P.G. Wodehouse (author of the Jeeves and Wooster series).  It was inspired by an amusing incident that happened to Molnár.  Returning home early one day, he overheard his actress wife declaring her love for her German tutor.  Rushing furiously into the room, he sheepishly discovered that they were merely practicing speaking German by reading the dialogue from a sultry play.  Molnár twists around this idea to form the basis of his play.

Playwright collaborators Sandor Turai and Mansky accompany their young composer Albert Adam to an Italian castle to surprise Albert's fiancee, the prima donna Ilona Szabo.  The trio accidentally overhear Ilona in a passionate interaction with her former lover, the married actor Almady.  Albert is crushed and threatens to tear up the music that he has written for his betrothed, which would be a major setback to Turai and Mansky's new operetta.  Mansky laments "if he tears up his music and kills the prima dona, what sort of first night would we have?"¹    Sandor devises a plot to convince Albert that Ilona and Almady were merely rehearsing lines from a play.  

*Photo by by Cylla von Tiewdemann
Working all night, Sandor feverishly writes a new play that incorporates the  amorous conversation overheard between Ilona and Almady.  Wishing to avoid a scandal that could result in the end of Ilona's engagement and Almady's marriage, the two agree to quickly learn the play and perform it at a scheduled festival the next day.  The play must include lines like "I'm crazy about you and you used me up and squeezed me like a lemon and now you want to throw me away..."¹ and "Come let me kiss your beautiful classic brow"¹.  In order to account for Almady's declaration of "My god, how round it is, how smooth, how velvety, round and fragrant .. let me take a bite"¹, in possible reference to Ilona's breast or buttocks, Sandor spins a ridiculous tale about an unfaithful fruit grower whose most cherished possession is his prized peach.  In order to punish Almady for the trouble that he has caused, Sandor writes Almady's character in the play as a vain imbecile and gives him speeches where he has to remember and pronounce overly long names of people and places.  This becomes a continual running joke as the play is performed during a dress rehearsal that takes place in front of Mansky and Albert.

Two minor characters provide additional comic relief in the play.  The prim and proper, ultra-competent and discreet Jeeves-like butler Dwornitschek acts as a sounding board for Turai and provides him with important information regarding Ilona and Almady's dalliances and flirtation prior to the arrival of Turai and his group.  Even funnier is the frazzled stage assistant Mel who is responsible for the props for play (where's the peach?  I can't believe he ate our only peach!), prompting lines for the actors, and providing the sound effects, which he does at all the wrong times.

In addition to the main play within a play plot device, The Play's The Thing uses meta-references to spoof the theatre world and the art of play-writing itself.   The performance opens with the trio of Turai, Mansky and Adams sitting in silence in the dark, with only the glow of their lit cigarettes for lighting.  The silence goes on for so long that the audience starts to twitter and wonder whether there is a technical problem.  But then they start to speak as the two playwrights discuss how difficult it is to start a play.  Turai insists that the direct approach is best and so the three proceed to break the fourth wall by addressing the audience and introducing themselves, their setting and their reason for gathering.  A similar discussion arises when the three debate how to end the second act, with each one offering a different suggestion.  Mansky proposes a toast to the fickleness of women, Albert suggests smashing his glass after the toast and stabbing himself with a bread knife in an expression of his anguish over Ilona's betrayal, but Sandor insists that there be a cliffhanger ending and proceeds to bring that about.

                                                 *Middle Photo by by Cylla von Tiewdemann

The staging and set design for the play is relatively sparse, relying on a pair of chandeliers, a giant, gilded empty picture frame and some period furniture and doors to represent a room within an Italian castle.  Interestingly, Ilona and Almady are not shown while they are carrying on their incriminating conversation.  Their voices are heard emanating from behind a closed door, so that the audience is overhearing them in the same way as Turai, Mansky and Albert.  This allows the audience to imagine what is happening based only on the words spoken, making it all the more delicious when we see how Turai has interpreted these words in his play.  Contrast this with the staging in a version of the play performed in Brussels, where the prima dona and actor are shown behind the door.

The performers playing Turai, Mansky and Almady came out for a "talkback" Q&A session after the show.  All three of them played these same roles the previous two times that the show was mounted, back in 1999 and 2003.  They talked about the relationship between Mansky and Turai, who acted like an old married couple.  They explained that when P.G. Wodehouse adapted the play into English, he captured the nuances of the original and perhaps made the role of the butler a bit more like his own famous Jeeves character.  They revealed that the jokes regarding the big long names spoken by Almady were originally in Molnár's Hungarian play, and that for some reason, when performed in Ottawa, the audience did not find it that funny. This is surprising because our audience thought it was hilarious and roared so loud with laughter that we missed Almady's next words after each iteration.

¹ The Play's The Thing by Ferenc Molnár; Adapted by P.G.Wodehouse

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Theatre: Full House the Musical

When you sign up to watch a musical parody that is based on the schlocky 1980s family sitcom Full House and stars celebrity gossip monger Perez Hilton as super-dad Danny Tanner, you should not be expecting much in terms of sophisticated plot, dialogue or songs.  Full House, the Musical Parody lives down to these expectations but is still fun to watch as long as you don't hope for too much.

All the usual suspects are accounted for including widower Danny Tanner and his three daughters DJ, Stephanie and Michelle, although in this rendition, Michelle is winkingly named "MaryKay-And-Ashley" in reference to the now famous Olsen twins who played that role on the TV show.  There is also Uncle Jessie doing his best Greek Elvis impersonation, Jessie's love interest Rebecca Donaldson, as well as best friend Joey with his woodchuck puppet.  The actor playing Joey also takes on the role of DJ's wacky friend Kimmy Gibler as well as Comet the dog (while dressed in a big fluffy dog suit!).  The actress who plays Rebecca doubles as Stephanie's bad-girl friend Gia.

The start of the musical trots out all the familiar tropes of the TV show but exaggerates them to the nth degree.  Danny Tanner is fastidious and likes to clean, gets extremely depressed when the topic of his dead wife is brought up, and is known for his piano music serenaded "dad talks" that magically resolve any problems that his daughters are facing.  This family is also known for constantly hugging each other and this action is extended to the audience when several times in the show, the cast runs down to hug the people sitting in the front row and on the aisles.  In an interview, Perez Hilton referred to this area as the "hug zone", taking a page from the splatter zone of Evil Dead the Musical.   All the signature catchphrases are accounted for including "How Rude" by Stephanie,  "Aw nuts"  by Mary-Kate-And-Ashley (aka Michelle), "Have Mercy" by Jesse as he smooths down his slicked-back hair, and "Cut it out" by Joey.

In the opening musical number that introduces all the main characters in the house, the diminutive adult actress Marshall Louise, plays the role of MaryKate-And-Ashley as an infant in a baby carriage.  I marveled at how she was able to scrunch her body into this contraption that displayed her face but hid her body and wondered how uncomfortable it must be.  Luckily by the second song, she was on her feet and now portraying a precocious eight-year-old child.

As the show progresses, more and more problems arise that even the "dad talks" cannot solve.  Interestingly, the musical takes the real-life issues of the former cast members of the TV show and assigns them to the corresponding characters.  Accordingly, DJ develops anorexia just like actress Candace Cameron, Stephanie mirrors Jodie Sweeton's drug issues and a reference is made to Jesse's DUI charge, just like original portrayer John Stamos.  Disillusioned by the lack of effectiveness of his family talks, Danny Tanner has a breakdown and morphs into a version of foul-mouthed stand-up comic Bob Saget.

The second act of the play distorts the story lines from a couple popular episodes of the TV show.  First the family plans to take a trip to Disneyland but end up instead in Bismalland.  Then taking the plot from the TV show's final episode, MaryKate-And-Ashley falls off her horse and loses her memory.  In her altered state, she transitions into the grownup version of the Olsen twins, decked out in long wavy tresses, boho-styled baggy clothing, and dark sunglasses.  Actress Marshall Louise absolutely nails the impression of a cocaine-snorting bitch with slouched posture and spaced-out drawl.

This parody is full of profanity, lewd references and groan-inducing jokes, as it lampoons the TV show, its characters and plots, and the actors who played the roles.  That it is actually a musical is purely incidental since the songs are totally forgettable.  It definitely helps if you are familiar with the original show, so that you can appreciate all the references and how they are spoofed.  This show is not for everyone, but for true Full House fans who accept what it tries to offer, it can be an entertaining experience.

At the end of the show, after the curtain call, the cast stayed on stage and Perez Hilton informed the audience that it was the birthday of actress Amanda Nicolas who plays DJ.  He asked us all to sing Happy Birthday to her and send them photos and videos.  The souvenirs on sale were appropriately low-brow for this show, including underwear briefs with the various catchphrases embossed on them. In this electronic age, it was interesting to note that there were no hardcopy show programs available for distribution.  Instead, you could download one by scanning a QR Code or accessing a URL.  This modern cost-cutting idea may become a new trend for the future?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Movie: TIFF 2015 - Part 2

Every year at TIFF, we like to watch a few Canadian movies to support our local filmmakers.  This year, our favourite was a satire about Canadian politics called My Internship in Canada, which reminds me quite a bit of Terry Fallis' award winning book The Best Laid Plans.  Directed by French-Canadian Philippe Falardeau (who also directed the Oscar nominated film Monsieur Lazhar), this movie deals with a quick-thinking, philosophy-quoting Haitian named Souverain who travels to rural Quebec to work as an intern for MP Steve Guibord, a former hockey star.  Steve and Souverain deal with a slew of problems including settling a dispute between the Aboriginal Indians vs. the logging industry, which results in multiple protests and road blockages.  Steve also needs to decide whether or not to send Canadian troops to war, when somehow he ends up being the swing vote and is pressured from both sides as to how to vote.

The actor who plays Souverain simply lights up the screen with his incredulous but delighted smile as he learns the ropes of Canadian politics.  His Skype chats with his family and villagers back home are hilarious as he describes the dicey situations and they question why Steve doesn't just lead a coup, as would be the case in Haiti.  Actor Patrick Huard (who we previously watched in the comedy Starbuck) spoke briefly before the movie and said that a frequent question he gets is whether his role as Steve was based on a real politician.  He replied that since the character was written as an upstanding, moral, intelligent man that was full of integrity, then no, this could not possibly be based on any real politician.  My Internship in Canada was light-hearted, entertaining fun, which came as a nice change after attending a slew of tense or depressing movies back to back.

As much as it might be easy to poke fun at or criticize our own political or judicial systems, watching movies dealing with the state of affairs in India provides a jolting reminder of just how lucky we are and how good we have it here in Canada.  The movie Guilty deals with an actual case where a 14-year-old girl named Shruti is found murdered in her bed and a servant is found with his throat slit on the floor below.  The initial investigation is so incompetently botched by the local police that all forensic evidence becomes contaminated.  Based on conjecture, innuendo and circumstantial evidence, the police arrest Shruti's father on the theory that where was a liaison between the child and the servant, and that this is an honour killing.

The case is reassigned to a much more competent external investigation unit led by the head detective played by famous Indian actor Irrfan Khan (from The Lunchbox).  Although Khan's character easily pokes holes into the original case against the father, he has difficulty finding hard evidence against his suspects due to the ineptitude of the original investigation.  He resorts to questionable means including coercion, police brutality and the dodgy use of truth serum which produces confessions from the perpetrators.  Just when it seems like Khan will get a conviction, politics, favoritism and corruption come into play and his evidence is questioned due to his dubious tactics.  A third task force is assigned to the case and reverts to the initial theory that the parents were responsible for the deaths.  Even though there is still no plausible evidence, the parents are convicted and sent to jail where they still are today.

The scenarios proposed by each of the investigative units is shown in Rashomon fashion.  While it is not known which one (if any) is correct, it is clear that the movie favours the second theory.  During the Q&A, the director and Khan talked about the amount of research that was done on this case in preparation of the movie, how shocked they were at the miscarriage of justice, and how they hoped that publicity from the movie might lead to reexamination of the case.  The movie is meant to be an indictment on India's judicial system.

Angry Indian Goddesses is another movie that shines light on social issues within India, particularly regarding the treatment of women.  It starts out profiling six feisty, independent Indian women and their battles against male chauvinism and misogyny.  Jo is a Bollywood actress who wants to kick butt as opposed to being the damsel in distress.  Madhurita (Mad) is a singer being heckled during her set.  Pam, the housewife, is oogled while she jogs on the treadmill.  Suranjana is the workaholic head of a company who ignores her daughter as she tries to make it in a male-dominated industry.  Frieda is a photographer who wants to make art as opposed to taking commercial photos objectifying women.  Frieda's maid Lakshmi holds her own when she is harassed walking to the market.

The women gather and bond at what turns out to be Frieda's bachelorette party, although she is coy about who she is about to marry.  She will only reveal that it is someone her father does not approve of and therefore refuses to attend the wedding.  Eventually we learn that Frieda is gay and about to marry Nargis, an environmental activist who has had run-ins with Suranjana's company.  Gay marriage is not legal in India and so they hope for a private symbolic ceremony with their closest friends.  The first two thirds of the movie is filled with fun, laughter and beautiful shots on the beach as we get to know each of the seven women.  There are poignant moments as each woman is profiled with a scene describing the issues she faces.  Mad has been suicidally depressed about her failing music career.  Pam wants to leave her unhappy marriage and start her own business.  Frieda and Nargis acknowledge that they will be facing a future of prejudice and homophobia.  Suranjana is made to realize how neglected and lonely her daughter has been.  But the most gripping story belongs to the maid Lakshmi, who cannot get justice for her murdered brother, even though she witnessed the crime because her lone testimony as a woman is not taken seriously.

The mood of the movie takes a sharp U-Turn in the final act when a heinous crime is committed against one of the group.  Given their past experiences, the remaining women feel that they need to take matters into their own hands as the only way to punish the perpetrators.  Despite its initially light tone, the purpose of Angry Indian Goddesses is ultimately to shed light on the massive issue of violence against women.  Three of the stars from the movie came rushing in just in time for the Q&A.  They had just come from learning that their film was the runner up for the festival's coveted Grolsch People's Choice Award.  They informed us that much of the dialogue was improvised and that it was impossible for them to watch the movie without crying.  When asked the reason for the sudden turn in the tone of the movie, they said that it reflected real life–sometimes bad things just happen, and in India, they happen more often than not.

The German film The People vs Fritz Bauer was interesting to watch since it deals with the same character and period in history (late 1950s) as the film Labyrinth of Lies from last year's TIFF, but from a different perspective.  Both films follow the hunt for Nazi war criminals and collaborators, spearheaded by lead prosecutor Fritz Bauer.  In Labyrinth of Lies, Bauer was just a peripheral character who assigns the task of chasing Nazis to fictional junior prosecutor Johann Radmann.  In The People vs Fritz Bauer, the titular character has the leading role  and we find out much more about him that in the previous movie.  Being Jewish in a Germany where antisemitism still runs rampant, Bauer is sent threatening hate mail including a bullet wrapped in a swastika flag and is hindered at every turn in his investigation.  We also learn that Bauer is gay–a fact that if proven, could undermine his position in the prosecutors' office.  This movie focuses on the search for Nazi SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolph Eichmann who has been tracked to Argentina.  When Bauer and his protegé, another fictional junior prosecutor named Karl Angermann, are unable to get support from their own government to capture Eichmann, Bauer secretly enlists Israel's intelligence service Mossad to complete the mission.

Schneider vs Bax is a deliciously funny dark comedy-thriller from the Netherlands with unexpected twists, great dialogue and intriguing peripheral characters.  Schneider and Bax are both assassins for hire, each inexplicably hired by the same client to kill the other one.  Schneider must travel to Bax's remote cottage located in a dense swamp to make the hit.  All along the way, the client Mertens is checking in on Schneider's progress and then secretly informing Bax so that he can set up an ambush.  The fun starts when the Mertens accidentally texts Schneider when he meant to text Bax, thus tipping off Schneider that this is a trap.  This sets up a cat and mouse game between the two men as they stalk each other throughout the swampland.

In addition to dealing with each other, both Schneider and Bax have to contend with other characters that interrupt their assignments.  Bax insensitively dispatches his girlfriend Nadine to prepare for a visit by his neurotic and depressed daughter Francisca. Things are further complicated by the arrival of his lecherous father Gerard who has designs on Francisca, and the return of spurned Nadine accompanied by her muscular friend Jules.  One of the most hilarious scenes occurs when Jules boasts that he could beat up Bax with his thumb alone, to which Bax retorts by cooling shooting off that thumb.  Circumstances force Schneider to take on an unwelcome passenger / hostage named Gina, who both hampers and helps him.

Schneider and Bax takes place over one day, but was shot mostly outdoors over a period of 50 days, making it difficult to look like the same day in terms of weather.  The location of the shoot was in a protected sanctuary so there were times when the director had to wait for bird eggs to hatch before filming could continue.  The way the various characters waded in and out of the swamp waters had the feeling of a bedroom farce, where instead of slamming of doors, there was sinking into the mud.

We watched two Asian crime syndicate action flicks that turned out to be very different in tone and theme.  The South Korean cop movie Veteran is the typical fare providing fast-action fun including kung-fu fighting, pakour-styled foot pursuits and spectacular car chases. There is the usual trope of the tough, honest but over-zealous cop, Detective Seo, who is not adverse to crossing the line into police brutality in order to get his man.  He is up against an ultra-rich, over privileged head of a corporation who is brutal, corrupt and trying to start up a crime organization. The story line for Veteran is quite predictable, but the movie gives you everything that you would expect for its genre–snappy humourous quips from Seo, exhilarating fight scenes and a rollicking good time.

It was the Chinese gangster movie Mr. Six that defied expectations with its deep, meaningful themes about the generational gap between old and new China, and the lament that the old concepts of tradition and honour are a thing of the past.  Mr. Six was once the leader of a street gang that ruled the streets of Beijing with a moral code and strict rules of engagement.  Arguments were settled fairly with a pre-arranged good old-fashioned gang rumble behind the Imperial Summer Palace.  Now retired, Mr. Six lives quietly in the Hutong neighbourhoods, but is still respected and to some degree feared by his peers and even the local police.  He realizes how much times have changed when his estranged son Xiao Bo gets kidnapped by a new street gang of ultra-rich over-privileged punks (this point is similar to the movie Veteran) who drag race fancy sports cars.  Xiao Bo is held for ransom after he scratches the car of the gang leader following an altercation, and it is up to his father to rescue him.

Circumstances cause this minor dispute with the young street gang to escalate into a feud with a powerful mob syndicate.  This all leads up to the climatic confrontation at the end of the movie where Mr. Six arrives alone kamikazi-style with a long sword to do battle while his reunited former gang members race to support him.  Just when you think you are going to get the reenactment of The Gangs of New York finale where the various gangs rush towards each other, the director totally surprises you with a beautifully shot, almost poetic ending that defies the clichés of the genre.

Surprisingly for a gangster movie, there is very little on screen violence or bloodshed as much of the fighting happens in the background.  Instead the director focuses on character development and the relationships between Mr. Six and his son, girlfriend, friends and even some of his adversaries who eventually come to admire and respect him.  In fact, the movie plays more like an old Western where the hero lives by his own set of principles and values honour above all.

The actor, Xiaogang Feng, who played Mr. Six is apparently very famous in China because the audience of predominantly Chinese origin audibly gasped and then erupted in applause when he came out with the rest of the cast and the director.  The director indicated that in addition to highlighting communication issues between parents and children, this movie also focuses on the problems arising from China's over-rapid development.

Another foreign film that does not follow the usual tropes of North American thrillers is the Romanian movie One Floor Below.  Coming home from walking his dog, Sandu Patrascu overhears a violent argument between two of his neighbours Laura and Vali, who are obviously having an affair.  When Laura ends up dead, Sandu decides to mind his own business and not tell the police, even though he is quite sure who the killer is.  But things get tense when Vali starts showing up at Sandu's house and ingratiating himself with Sandu's wife and son.

Described as "an expertly executed slow-burn thriller reminiscent of Hitchcock's Rear Window", it soon becomes clear that there are cultural differences regarding what constitutes a thriller.  There is no suspenseful mood music, no surprise scares and no violence, bloodshed or gore.  When the dog played so prominently in the early scenes, I whispered to my seatmate that most likely, that dog was toast!  But nothing happens to the dog or anyone else. Instead, the movie plays out more as a character study and a commentary on the "don't get involved" mentality in Romania. So this so-called thriller was not very thrilling but it was still an interesting movie. 

The Japanese film Our Little Sister is by far the sweetest movie that I watched this year.  Based on a manga (Japanese comics), it is about three sisters who were abandoned by both parents years ago when their father took off to be with another woman, and their vain, flighty mother left them with their grandmother shortly after.  The eldest sister Sachi basically raised her sisters Yoshino and Chika.  The three travel to a remote village to attend their estranged father's funeral.  There they meet their younger half sister Suzu, who has been left alone with an uncaring stepmother after her father's death.  Feeling empathy and sharing Suzu's plight at being abandoned by her own mother, the sisters ask her to come live with them.

Had this been a North American movie, there would be more forced drama, jealousy or angst, either between the sisters or with one of the deserting mothers.  Instead, other than some minor sibling squabbles, the four sisters treat each other with nothing but love and affection.  When an aunt questions taking in Suzu by saying "She may be your little sister, but she is also the child of the woman who destroyed your family", Sachi sensibly replies that it wasn't her fault and that she wasn't even born when their father left.   In another movie, Suzu would have trouble adapting to her new home or school, but here, she fits in right away and is very popular. Sachi and Suzu do help each other deal with their internalized feelings of abandonment by their respective parents.  In a cathartic scene, the two scream their frustrations while standing at the top of a hill overlooking the valley. 

The movie is beautifully shot, showcasing Japan's mountains, lakes, beaches and cherry blossom trees.  Our Little Sister delves into the characters and romantic relationships of each of the four sisters.  Sachi is in love with a married man, making her more understanding of the affair between Suzu's mother and their shared father.  Yoshino dates losers and then gets drunk after they dump her.  Chika seems to have a nice normal boyfriend (not much drama here) while a classmate has a crush on Suzu.  I had a smile on my face the entire time while watching this pleasant, gentle movie by the same director (Hirokazu Koreeda) who brought the movie Like Father, Like Son to TIFF a few years back.

The U.K. movie The Lady in the Van is based on a true story that was first written up as a book and then turned into a stage play before it made its way to the cinema.  In the 1970s, an eccentric, ornery and delusional old woman named Mary Shepherd convinces author and playwright Alan Bennett to allow her to temporarily park her dilapidated live-in van in the driveway of his home in Camden, a northern suburb of London.  She was only supposed to stay there for a few weeks, but somehow, the arrangement continued for over 15 years.  While the neighbours initially looked upon her in disdain, they eventually accepted and adopted her, bringing her food and giving her Christmas presents.  Maggie Smith is amazing as she reprises the role of Miss Shepherd, which she also performed in the stage play.  Through Smith's portrayal, it was clear that while Shepherd slightly mentally deranged, she was also strong-willed and lived life on her own terms.

In the Q&A, the director Nicolas Hytner revealed that he actually lived in the area during this period and had noticed the van when he visited Alan Bennett, but did not realize its significance.  Being British, he had been too polite to ask, and this applied to many of Bennett's other friends as well.  Hytner felt this story showed the British did have the capacity for kindness, since the entire neighbourhood rallied behind and protected Miss Shepherd.