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.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Movie: TIFF 2015 - Part 1

Either there are more movies this year that appeal to us or we have gotten more savvy at choosing them.  After 11 days and 26 movies at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, there were only two and a half movies that we really did not enjoy.  The half was due to watching a Shorts Programme where I liked 5/9 of the short films.  This is an amazing result for us.  Compare this to two years ago, when after 3 days and 7 movies, we had yet to watch anything that we thought was any good.  Like every other year, we selected a good mix of films in terms of genre and nationality, favouring smaller movies or foreign movies that we might otherwise not have a chance to see.  This year we chose movies from 17 different countries including ones that we don't usually pick, such as Japan, Palestine, Austria, Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand.  In addition to the shorts, we also had a documentary and a Midnight Madness horror film, making it a well rounded and diverse lineup of movies.

We really enjoyed Trumbo, which describes the period during the 1940-1950s when American paranoia about the threat of Communism led to the "Hollywood Blacklists".  People in the movie industry who were deemed to be Communists were forced to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee to denounce Communism and to rat out fellow party members.  Those who refused to testify were jailed for Contempt of Congress and upon their release, were shunned and their services were boycotted.

The movie focuses on acclaimed screen writer Dalton Trumbo, played superbly by Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston, who was jailed for 1 year for refusing to testify, and was subsequently denied work from any of the major Hollywood studios.  Throughout this ordeal which lasted over 10 years, Trumbo kept his integrity, sharp tongue and quick wit about him.  He formed a screen writing "black market" whereby he and his colleagues secretly created screen plays under assumed names.  Incredibly, two of the scripts that Trumbo wrote during this period, Roman Holiday and The Brave One, won Academy Awards although he would not be recognized for these victories until decades later.

Helen Mirren plays Hedda Hopper, a powerful Hollywood gossip columnist who used her popular column to spread anti-Communist propaganda and apply pressure on studio heads to enforce the blacklist.  For such a serious topic, the movie is full of humour and even laugh-out-loud moments, driven mostly by Cranston's spot-on delivery of Trumbo's quick repartee and witticisms, as well as a hilarious scene featuring John Goodman and a baseball bat.  There are also many poignant moments, including one between Trumbo and his daughter, played by Elle Fanning, and a confrontation with actor Edward G. Robinson, once a close friend and staunch party member who eventually was pressured into denouncing Communism and betraying his friends.  In his own defense, Robinson pointed out that he had not worked for over a year, and while Trumbo and the other writers could continue to write under aliases, there was no hiding for actors.  Trumbo acknowledged this in a speech made after the blacklist was over when he said "In the final tally, we were all victims".

The power of the blacklist finally dissipated when two Hollywood powerhouses of the time, director Otto Preminger and actor Kirk Douglas, bravely defied political pressure by publicly crediting Dalton Trumbo as the writer for creating the screenplays for Exodus and Spartacus respectively.  When Kirk Douglas was threatened of being boycotted, he quoted the famous line from his movie when he said "You can't replace me, I AM Spartacus".  This as well as several other scenes caused the audience in our screening to erupt in applause.

Unfortunately we had to run to our next movie and missed most of the Q&A with director Jay Roach, but we did stay long enough to hear that Trumbo's two daughters attended the premiere screening and that a series of letters written by Trumbo to friends and family had been published into a book.  One letter in particular was written to his son Chris, telling him not to feel guilty about the natural act of masturbation.  The letter was signed "From the masturbator's masturbator .. your father, Dalton Trumbo".  This was an excellent, feel good movie which hopefully will do well in the upcoming awards season.

The Lobster is a thought-provoking absurdist satire which comments on modern society's predilection towards couples and prejudices against single people. Taking these concepts to extremes, the movie is set in a dystopian world where single, divorced or widowed people are sent to a retreat called "The Hotel" where they are given training on how to find a mate, and are allotted 45 days to do so.
Anyone failing to make a match within that time period is turned into an animal of his choosing and set loose in "The Woods".  The inmates are given a chance to extend their deadlines by hunting for escapees.  Shooting runaways with a tranquilizer gun and recapturing one gains you an extra day.  The generally accepted criteria for forming a couple in this strange society is based on a shared physical or personality defect such as having a limp, speaking with a lisp or being prone to nosebleeds.

Sadsack, recently divorced David, played by a dumpy-looking Colin Farrell,  is brought to The Hotel, accompanied by a dog who we learn is his brother "who didn't make it during his stay".  David's animal of choice is a lobster since this species has a relatively long lifespan and lives in the ocean which appeals to him.  The Hotel provides seminars about the benefits of having a mate in different situations, such as being available to perform the Heimlich maneuver on you if you are choking.  It also organizers meet-up dances and other activities to encourage coupling.

David's attempts to find a soulmate grow more desperate as time runs out, to the point where he fakes having a cruel and heartless nature in order to be paired by a female sadist.  When David is unable to keep up the charade and reacts emotionally to a horrific act perpetuated by the sadist to test him, he decides to escape.  Almost captured, he is aided by a rogue group of loners who live in The Woods, bound by rules where relationships and emotional attachments are strictly forbidden and punishable by severe physical torture.  This sounds fine to David after what he has been through, until he meets his true love and soulmate, a woman played by Rachel Weiss who shares his limitation of shortsightedness.

This movie provides biting commentary on what society considers to be an acceptable pairing, be it related to race, religion, gender, social status, or in this crazy world, personal defects. The absurdity of the movie starts with its initial scene where, without explanation, a woman drives up to a pair of donkeys in the woods, gets out of the car, shoots one and drives away.  On retrospect, one could imagine that this is a spurned wife getting revenge on her wayward former spouse who has been transformed into a donkey (Why would you pick a donkey as your animal?!?)  This movie has many funny moments but also some serious themes that make you stop and think about the state of your own society.  The Greek director Yorgo Lamthimos, whose previous film Dogtooth was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2011, attended the Q&A with his star Rachel Weiss.

Feeding my love of musicals, we watched several movie musicals this year.  "London Road"  is an English language cinematic interpretation of the verbatim stage musical which we watched as a Canstage theatre production last year.  In 2006, during a period when a serial killer murdered five prostitutes in Ipswich, U.K., the playwright taped a series of interviews with the townspeople to gauge their reactions during the man hunt, capture and trial of the suspect.  She created the songs and dialogue for the musical by taking the text word for word from the interviews, including nervous tics, coughs, giggles and hesitations such as "umm..", "er..", "you know", or "like".  The resulting songs are operatic in style, with lines of dialogue repeated multiple times.

It was interesting comparing the movie with play.  As expected, the movie needed to trim and reorder some of the songs and scenes from the play in order to reach a reasonable viewing length, but in doing so, important context was lost.  In the play, the song "It Could Be Him?" revealed how nervous the townswomen were, feeling wary of all the males around them - "It could be anyone here...".  It also conveyed the strain on the men who felt they were being unjustly suspected.  "I used to get on the bus, I used to say I'm innocent!  I'm innocent .. there were days when I just didn't go out ...".  Much of this sense of menace and foreboding was lost in the movie where the song was sung primarily by giggling girls racing through the streets and shops.  In addition, the characterizations of the townspeople lacked depth in the movie in comparison to the play.  The main advantage of the movie over the play was the location shots that helped you to better visualize the environment where these events took place.

In the Q&A, director Rufus Norris discussed how he never considered filming on the real road in Ipswich since he would not want to force the neighbourhood to relive the trauma of those days.  Instead he found the perfect road that was overlooked by a looming industrial factory that provided the perfect atmosphere for the movie.  He also talked about how he wanted most of the actors to be relative unknowns so that they would blend more into the story.  The one exception was actor Tom Hardy, who apparently became much more famous after he was cast in a cameo as a creepy taxi driver.   Recognizing Hardy jolted you out of the scene for a moment and Norris joked that he would have to cut out all of Tom's scenes because of this.

We were excited about watching the Chinese musical  Office by Hong Kong action film director Johnnie To, whose crime thrillers are usually a staple of our annual TIFF experience.  In the past few years, he has been expanding his repertoire and trying out new genres.  Dealing with corporate politics, romance, intrigue, and backstabbing in the times leading up to the global financial crisis of 2008, Office is not only To's first musical, but also one that he decided to shoot in 3D!  It was a strange and challenging experience trying to watch the fast moving action, especially in the choreographed musical numbers, while trying to read the subtitles that seem like they are floating in space on a different plane.

 Office is based on a stage play called Design For Living by actress Sylvia Chang, and by filming in 3D, To reproduces the experience of watching live theatre. The set has a futuristic Sci-Fi feel with all the metal beams, multi-leveled platforms and the giant spinning clock in the middle of the workplace.  The clock with its see-through mechanical gears seems to symbolize the life of the office drones, who are cogs in the wheel of the mega corporation, punching the clock day in and day out.  When a central character over-leverages just prior to the financial crash and is pressured to come up with the money, the clock starts to spin faster and faster, showing that he is quickly running out of time.

The characters spoke Mandarin, Cantonese, and even a bit of English throughout the movie.  I could understand the latter two languages which allowed me to skip reading the subtitles in these cases, but unfortunately all the songs were performed in Mandarin, which is foreign to me.  Office is beautifully shot, has a compelling story line and the melodies and the lyrics of the songs were beautiful.  But needing to read the subtitles to interpret what was sung caused a time-delayed disconnect, so that the emotional impact of the performances was diminished.  

This emotional disconnect was also felt in The Idol, which follows the journey of Mohammad Assaf, the first Palestinian from the Gaza strip to win the singing competition Arab Idol. The singing was in a foreign language without subtitles, since the director wanted people to listen to the voice rather than reading subtitles.  But it was more than just the language barrier that caused the feeling of detachment towards the climax of the film.  The bigger issue was that the majority of the movie focused on Assaf as a child, who along with his sister and two friends, scrounged and saved so that they could buy instruments to form a band.  We became so emotionally invested in these four children that when they were suddenly aged towards the end of the film, it was difficult to transfer those feelings to the grownup actors.  It was even confusing trying to figuring out which older actor represented which youngster.  After spending so much time exploring the lives, hopes, dreams, hardships and adversities of the children, the rest of the story felt rushed once they grew up. The scenes depicting Assaf's march through the Arab Idol competition just flew by, so that when he finally won, the excitement for this feat was muted.

The Q&A was attended by 3 of the 4 children as well as the real Mohammad Assaf himself.  We learned that while Assaf's voice was used for the singing, he declined the chance to play himself in the movie, deciding to leave the acting to real actors.  The director explained that the female actress who played the sister was unable to attend the festival due to immigration issues and that even Assaf, who was granted a diplomatic UN passport after his victory, barely received his Visa into Canada in time.

Watching a set of short films is always a hit and miss experience since there will usually be some very good ones, and some weird, inexplicable ones.  In the series that I watched, there were three excellent shorts.  Never Happened is a quirky, sexy comedy about coworkers on a business trip who have a fantastical way to negate their "quicky" affair.  Benjamin is a heart-wrenching drama about four best friends, a lesbian and a gay couple, who enter into a surrogacy arrangement where each woman carries a baby for one of the couples.  Tragedy strikes when one of the women miscarries.   Finally a delightful, whimsical animated film called Otto deals with a little girl whose imaginary friend becomes a comfort to a depressed childless couple.

The documentary "Women He Undressed" is very unique in the way that it tells the life story of Australian designer Orry-Kelly, who was costume designer to the Hollywood stars from the 1930s up until his death in 1964.  He clothed such greats as Betty Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Shirley Maclaine, Jane Fonda,  won 3 academy awards for Best Costume Design for the movies An American In Paris, Les Girls and Some Like It Hot, and worked on classics such as Casablanca, Oklahoma, Irma La Douche and Gypsy.  The documentary deals not only with Orry-Kelly's astonishing career, but also delves into his personal life as a gay man, battling homophobia in Hollywood and dealing with alcoholism.  Much time is spent on the personal relationship that he carried on in his youth, with a young actor who would eventually take the screen name of Cary Grant.  Unlike Orry-Kelly, Grant fought hard to hide his homosexuality throughout his life, even to the point of using his influence to squash the publication of Orry-Kelly's memoirs for fear of being mentioned in it.

Rather than relying solely on interviews, archival photos and footage, director Gillian Armstrong casts actors to play the parts of Orry-Kelly (as a child and as an adult), his mother Florence Kelly and various other characters.  By doing so, Armstrong walks a fine line between documentary and biopic. The opening and closing scenes of the movie depict a stylized version of Orry-Kelly's funeral.  Tall, model-like women, dressed in gowns probably designed by Orry-Kelly, act as pallbearers, carrying the red rowboat named after his hometown Kiama,  which appears a motif throughout the film.

I usually don't like the horror movies, but if I must watch one, the "The Final Girls" is definitely more my speed.  As a spoof of the genre, it is campy fun (pun intended), full of heart and emotion with a minimum amount of blood, gore and scares. Orphaned teenager Max Cartwright misses her mother Amanda, a struggling actress who died in a car crash 3 years ago.  Max is reluctantly convinced by her friends to attend a tribute screening of her mother's most famous film "Camp Bloodbath", a cheesy slasher flick set in a summer camp, where a supernatural being stalks and kills the camp counselors, especially those who engage in sexy or sexual acts. It turns out the killer is the evil spirit of a nerdy camp kid named Billy, who was bullied and badly burned back in 1957 and has been exacting his revenge throughout the years. Amanda plays the role of shy, guitar-playing Nancy, who is killed in the movie shortly after losing her virginity.  As per the tropes of this psycho-killer genre, Billy will continue his reign of terror until the last potential victim, usually depicted as a courageous and virginal "final girl", is able to defeat him.

A fire breaks out during the screening of Camp Bloodbath and while trying to escape, Max and her friends somehow end up getting trapped inside the movie.  While they search for ways to vanquish the killer and escape the movie, Max also gets the opportunity to connect with Nancy (a.k.a. her mother).   The heart of the movie comes in the interactions between Max and Amanda, while the humour is generated by quirky camp counselors including smarmy, lascivious Kurt and stereotypically ditsy dumb blonde Tina, who performs the most hilarious striptease in an attempt to lure the killer out into the open.  The arrival of Max and her group changes the plot of the Camp Bloodbath, causing characters to die out of turn.  When the movie's intended final girl is killed prematurely, Max and Amanda unite to step up and take over this role.  Parodying the idea of being trapped in a movie, concepts such as the flashback scene, rolling credits and the movie sequel are cleverly incorporated into the story line.

The director Todd Strauss-Schulson, four cast members and the composer showed up for the premiere screening. The character of Max is played by Taissa Farmiga, who looks so much like her sister Vera (from Up in the Air) while Malin Akerman plays Amanda and Nina Dobrev from Vampire Stories plays Max's friend Nina.  The Final Girls is a delightful movie filled with thrills, laughs and touching moments.  Given my usual aversion to the horror genre, who would have thought that this would be one of my favourite movies at this year's festival?

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Summer Street Festivals - Open Streets, Buskerfest, Kensington Market, Distillery District

Toronto is a fun place to be in the summer, with a plethora of street festivals that turn high traffic volume roads into pedestrian playgrounds.  This year marks the second annual "Open Streets" festival which occurs on two separate Sunday mornings towards the end of the season.  From 9am-1pm, Bloor Street is closed from Parliament Street to Spadina Ave (extended to Christie Street on the second Sunday) and Yonge Street is closed from Bloor Street to Queen Street.  People are encouraged to stroll, cycle or roller blade up the middle of these usually busy roads, while entertained by buskers, musicians, aerobics and dance sessions, children's games, sports activities and more.  We really enjoyed the energetic brass band in front of Holt Renfrew, who played popular songs like Michael Jackson's Beat It and Cee-lo Green's Forget You (or F*** You if you prefer).

At Christie Pits, we tried our hand at archery using arrows with round plastic heads.  We learned that the company Arrow Storm runs games of archery tag, which they describe as being like paintball with arrows.  Although the representative insisted that the arrows don't hurt and even offered to let us shoot them at her, I personally had my doubts about this whole concept.  As we rode our bicycles past Honest Eds, we stopped to sign a petition requesting segregated bike lanes on Bloor and Danforth, and rode along a temporary lane for about a block, just to get the feel of what it could be like.   The theme for open streets is physical activity, which we witnessed as we passed by people doing yoga, zumba, kickboxing, skipping rope, playing road hockey, ultimate frisbee and square dancing.

A four-day Buskerfest saw the closing of Yonge Street from College to Queen from Thursday through Sunday at the end of August.  Clowns, jugglers, acrobats and contortionists performed their acts surrounded by huge crowds, occasionally enlisting audience members to participate in some of the tricks.  For the more popular acts that were already in progress, it was difficult to see over the multiple rows of people.  That's when you wished you were a cute little kid who could squeeze between the legs of adults to get to the front, without incurring any bad feelings.  We attended Buskerfest with a friend and her three young sons, who had no trouble finding their way through the crowd to get a front-row viewpoint for each performance.  Hats were passed around at the end of each show in order to collect money for the buskers, who encouraged people to donate bills ($5, $10, $20) but would gratefully accept whatever was offered.  From the looks of the hoards swarming up to contribute, it seemed like these entertainers did quite well at the event.

The living statue buskers had a tougher time since they relied on money being tossed into their buckets as people passed by, or when people wanted to pose for photos with them.  But these days with everyone having a phone or camera that could capture a snapshot from afar, I would imagine that the haul for these buskers was significantly less, even though they had to stand around all day while the performing buskers only had shows at scheduled intervals.  Scattered throughout the streets were examples of balloon art made by the Balloon buskers, whose creations included a giant minion, Spiderman and a dragon head.  The results were quite impressive and you wouldn't know they were made of balloons until you got up close to them.  This was definitely a step up from the twisted balloon dogs that are usually made.

The Wii Video Dance Game sponsored by Best Buy (to promote their TVs?) was very popular with kids, who lined up for the chance to dance along to popular songs.  The boys seemed to like "What Does The Fox Say" or Pharell William's "Happy" while the girls usually went for "Let it Go" from Frozen.  It was fun watching them joyfully try to follow the movements of the Wii game.  The stage at Yonge-Dundas Square featured various musical acts throughout the weekend.  We got there just in time to hear the end of a set of songs sung by the cast of "Full House the Musical", inspiring us to purchase tickets for the show.

On the last Sunday in the months from May through October, the streets that make up Kensington Market are closed to vehicles for "Pedestrian Sundays".  On these days, the area is even busier than usual as food vendors hawk their offerings from tables set up in front of the stores and entertainment can be found in the middle of the roads.  We came across a giant scrabble game being played by guys on rollerblades.  We did not realize until we saw the schedule afterwards, but there was also a giant dominos game, jenga, and an aerial acrobatic act.  Next Pedestrian Sunday, we will make sure to check out the agenda first on Facebook so that we don't miss anything.

As we strolled along, we spotted performers holding yellow balloons demarcated the locations of acrobatic and contemporary dance numbers.  In one case, as the dancers traversed down the street, the balloons moved along with them.  Music could be heard everywhere as we passed by one musical act after another.  There was a booth where poetry buskers offered to write you a poem or haikku on a topic of your choosing, for a small fee. Another area was advertising for the Toronto School of Burlesque with offers of demonstrations and lessons.

Timed to correspond with the Kensington Market Pedestrian Sundays is the Kensington Market Art Fair where artists displayed their drawings, paintings, photographs, pottery, textiles, screen prints, woodcuts, jewelry, clocks made out of gears, and other crafts for sale.  One booth that caught our eye displayed the whimsical but politically satirical oil on birch bark paintings by Tony Taylor , depicting politicians and bureaucrats with animal heads.  Great captions like "Tyrannosaurus Trump" for a big-mouth dinosaur in a suit and tie, or "Time to Take Out the Garbage" with two raccoons clearly conveyed the message or issues behind the works.  We also took note of the anatomically correct, ethnically diversified crochet dolls by Chason Yeboah.  In a popup pottery shop across from the Art Fair, we spotted some bowls that we liked by Guelph potter Chris Hierlihy and will consider contacting him to see if he makes serving platters in the shape that we are looking for.  Finally there were a series of sculptures on display, using various parts from cars and other metal scraps to create large-scaled monster-like creatures.

One could argue that the Distillery District is a permanent, fenced-off car-free zone, spanning multiple streets.  This historic area with its cobblestone streets provides year-round access to shops, restaurants, cafés, and art galleries and is often hosting festivals and entertainment.  On Labour Day weekend, the annual Artfest Toronto took place here, with the streets lined with canopy tents from which a variety of art, crafts, souvenirs and foods were offered for sale.  Scattered throughout were offerings of free samples including iced tea, shortbread cookies, tastings of jams and iced coffee.  The regular art galleries were still open during the festival, and provided a nice, air-conditioned respite from the hot weather.

It has been so much fun being able wander around and enjoy the various downtown areas without worrying about motor vehicles.  Having some streets temporarily or periodically closed for a festival is a good start, but Toronto should have more permanent, pedestrian-only areas in their downtown core, emulating districts in many European cities including Dublin's Grafton Street and Vienna's Innere Stadt, or North American ones like Manhattan's Broadway and Boston's Downtown Crossing.  Such areas are great for businesses since they are easily accessible by transit and allow people to amble around and spend their money.  Toronto should consider making the roads forming the touristy downtown shopping areas of Kensington Market and Yorkville to be permanent pedestrian-only streets, or at least pedestrian-only for longer periods of time.