Saturday, September 17, 2016

TIFF 2016 - Part 2

Each year at TIFF, my most anticipated and usually favourite movie of the film festival is a musical.  I have seen some wonderful ones over the years including London Road, The Last Five Years, Sunshine on Leith and The Sapphires.  This year's musical La La Land was actually one of the buzziest and most sought-after movies of the festival.  All the scheduled showings sold out before the end of the purchase window and there was so much overwhelming demand at the press screenings that over 100 people had to be turned away, which is unprecedented. Additional regular and press showings were actually added to the schedule to give more people a chance to see it.  Luckily we had secured our tickets early on and were thrilled to be able to watch La La Land on the big screen with a live audience.  It did not disappoint and the audience cheered and clapped several times during the screening.  It has a very good chance of winning the coveted Grosch People's Choice Award.

La La Land stars Ryan Gosling as struggling jazz pianist Sebastian, and  Emma Stone as aspiring actress Mia, who meet and fall in love while each trying to make their mark in L.A.  This is an old-fashioned throw-back musical that does not feel the need to justify why characters suddenly break out in song and dance–rather, it is just an accepted part of the genre from the golden age of Hollywood musical films.  Director Damien Chazelle (known for Whiplash) sets the tone right off the bat with a mega opening number in the vein of classics such as West Side Story (Prologue), Fiddler on the Roof (Tradition), Hairspray (Good Morning Baltimore) and Grease (Grease is the Word!).  La La Land's opening number "Another Day of Sun" is filmed on the ramp between Highways 100 and 105 in Los Angeles and involves over 100 multi-coloured vehicles and brightly dressed singers, dancers and acrobats weaving in and out, over and on top of cars stalled in a traffic jam.  The vibrant colour scheme is continued in several other joyous big musical numbers in terms of wardrobe, sets and background scenery.  A melancholy air seeps into other parts of the movie, with a sombre colour palette achieved by filming around twilight.

While both are musically talented to begin with, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling spent months learning tap and ballroom dancing together, achieving amazing results as they channel Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  There is a homage to Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain as Seb performs the signature move of twirling around a light pole. Gosling also was tutored in playing jazz piano for over three months.  The movie strikes a balance between showing the lonely, shallow, impersonal side of L.A. and Hollywood, contrasted against the wondrous magical side. The same can be said of the romance between Mia and Seb, which is portrayed in colourful montages and fantasy scenes of dancing in the stars when things are going well, but slips back to reality in darker, sober tones when problems arise.  A final fantasy montage towards the end of the movie harks back to dream-like dance sequences in iconic musicals such as An American in Paris, Oklahoma and Carousel.

Stone and Gosling both have sweet, melodic voices which they showcase by each singing a haunting, melancholy solo.  Depressed by repeated rejection in her auditions, Mia sings "Here's to the ones who dream; foolish as they may seem; here's to the heart that aches, here's to the mess we make ...".   Sebastian's song is even more devastating as he both croons and whistles "City of Stars, Are you shining just for me? ... Who knows, is this the start of something wonderful?  Or one more dream that I cannot make true?"  His sad, soulful voice makes your heart ache for him.  This movie is a wonderful tribute to the magical musicals of days gone by, but one that also grounds itself in the reality of the current day.  I hope it makes a new generation of people fall in love with musicals as I have.

The Exception is a fictionalized spy thriller set in the historic period around 1940 when Germany's last emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, is living in exile in the Netherlands which has been conquered by the Nazis.  A Dutch Jew named Mieke is acting as a maid in the Kaiser's household, but is actually a British spy whose mission is not revealed until the end of the movie.  Mieke develops a relationship with German Wehrmacht captain Stefan Brandt, who must make a choice between love and duty when he discovers her true identity.  Lily James and Jai Courtney give strong performances as the lovers, but it is Christopher Plummer playing Kaiser Wilhelm who shines.  Displaying a wide range of emotions including suppressed anger that occasionally explodes, a mischievous streak, compassion, tenderness and a resigned sadness, Plummer steals the show every time he is on the screen. This movie has it all, from drama to suspense to action to romance to wry, sarcastic humour usually delivered by the Kaiser.  In the Q&A, it was noted that while Captain Brandt was an SS soldier in the book from which the movie was based (The Kaiser's Last Kiss), he was deliberately changed to be a Wehrmacht soldier, to make the relationship with Mieke more palpable.  In terms of the title of the movie, it is made clear that in midst of all the evil and savagery shown by the German army, Brandt is "the exception".  The line "Take your clothes off", uttered several times in the movie, may quickly be added to the list of classic film quotes.

Prevenge is an extremely bloody dark comedy written by, directed by and starring British comedian Alice Lowe, who we first saw a few years ago in the movie Sightseers, in another sad-sack, slightly unhinged loner role.  In Prevenge, Lowe plays Ruth, a severely pregnant woman who is grieving for her recently deceased husband and hears her baby talking to her, urging her to kill people.  At first, the killings seem random and possibly justified by the behaviour of her lecherous victims.  But as the movie progresses, you realize that there is a much more personal reason driving her mad, vengeful acts.   While quite unapologetically gory, Ruth's plans and execution of her murders, accompanied by the high-pitched, squeaky urgings, commentary and admonishments of her unborn fetus, take on a strangely comical air.  In the Q&A, Lowe revealed that she wrote this part for herself when she was 7 months pregnant, realizing that no one else would cast her in a role in her state.  She got the idea by trying to dream up the most absurd situations that would contrast against the usual sanctity of pregnancy and motherhood.  Lowe provided the voice of the baby herself, quipping that it was so she would get the most credits in the movie.  Alice's actual baby Della Moon makes a brief cameo as Ruth's baby at the end of the movie and is also given an acting credit.  Lowe is so funny in a subversively dark crass way.  She even has a Twitter handle @PrevengeBaby which allows her to send crude, snarky, provocative tweets and blame it on the baby, such as "That bitch @alicelowe up on stage taking all the f---ing credit." and "Anne Hathaway definitely farted during her Q&A" and "I'd bitchslap @Bridget_Jones baby".  How hilariously brilliant is that?

The Chinese movie I'm Not Madame Bovary plays out like an allegory and acts as a social commentary on Chinese laws and customs, governmental bureaucracy, its views towards women, and the concept of saving face.  It deals with a peasant woman named Li Xue Lian from a small rural Chinese village, who conspires with her husband Qin Yuhe to fake their divorce in order to skirt some law that prevents them from owning a second apartment, and then remarry after the apartment is secured.  Rather than remarrying her, Qin takes up with another woman leaving Lian out in the cold.  The scorned Lian spends the next decade trying to gain justice by suing her husband (for breach of contract?) and then suing each level of the rural justice system when they fail to support her claim.  Her desire is for her original divorce to be declared fake so that she could divorce her cheating husband "for real" under her own terms.  Making matters worse, Qin shames her by libelously labeling her "Pan Jinlian", a synonym for "indecent woman", making Lian more determined than ever to win her case and clear her reputation.  Pan Jinlian is a fictional character from a famous 17th Century Chinese novel who cheated on her husband and then murdered him with the help of her lover.  It is very interesting that the English translation of the movie title changed the reference from Pan Jinlian to the more recognizable "Madame Bovary", the character from a famous French novel about an adulteress.

Although originally underestimated for being a poor peasant and a woman, Lian proves to be a force of nature as she stymies the government officials with her unrelenting focus and drive.  She accosts the officials at every turn, stages protests and sit-ins during important political conventions, submits a new law suit annually and takes her case all the way to Beijing, causing general loss of face to all the bureaucrats, police and legal officials that are unable to contain her.  The situation becomes quite humorous at times as the bureaucrats run around like keystone cops, hatching new plans to try to stop her from suing for yet another year.  At one point early on, out of desperation Lian tries to find someone to kill her Qin for her.  She almost seals the deal with the butcher, trading the murder for sex, but he backs out when he finds out that not only does she want him to kill the husband, but also the county judge, the provincial head judge and the mayor, all of whom she perceives have wronged her.  Lian's negotiations with the butcher are hilarious as he complains "that's a lot of killing for one night of sex".

In addition to being a very entertaining satire, I'm Not Madame Bovary is interesting to watch because of the unique aspect ratio pillarbox and masking effects used by the director.  Over 3/4 of the movie is shown through a circular filter, as if you were peeking through a round window.  This added to the "story-book" feel of the tale.  Twice in the movie, the aspect ratio changed temporarily to a narrow rectangle, but each time I was so engrossed in the plot that I did not detect the change until a few minutes later.  My best guess is that the scenes in Beijing were rectangular while the other scenes in the villages were circular.  I would have loved to hear the director's reasoning for these choices in a Q&A but unfortunately I saw this as a press screening so no Q&A was held.

Tramps is an endearing and (relatively) low-budget film that feints at being a caper movie, but is actually a romantic road/quest movie at heart.  The setup sounds ominous and shady enough, when naive Danny is convinced to complete a "job" for older brother Darren, who was detained in jail overnight for a misdemeanor. All Danny needs to do is to meet up with the driver of a red Nissan, be driven to a metro station where he will exchange a briefcase with another briefcase held by a woman holding a green purse.  Problems ensue when he accidentally "exchanges" with the wrong woman, inadvertently stealing the woman's purse instead.  In order to collect their respective payments, Danny and the driver Ellie must track down the woman who now has their briefcase.  In the course of their adventure, the two bond and learn to trust each other as Danny's earnestness slowly breaks down Ellie's walls.  This is a very sweet little movie that eschews big car chases and other action film tropes, relying instead on good dialogue and chemistry between the leads.  Danny is played by British actor Callum Turner whose hairstyle, lanky build, goofy mannerisms and charismatic grin make him a dead ringer for the late actor Corey Monteith.

Barakah Meets Barakah is possibly the first romantic comedy to come out of Saudi Arabia although it is just as much if not more of a social commentary.  It shines a light on the cultural, political and religious restrictions that hinder romance and other freedoms in the relatively modern city of Jeddah.  Mild-mannered civil servant Barakah Urabi is smitten with and tries to woo wealthy, free-spirited Instagram star Bibi Harith but is hindered by conservative views and the religious police which prevent them from openly being alone together unless they are engaged to be married.  Bibi runs through several scenarios when Barakah asks to meet her, with them all resulting in being rounded up by the religious police.  They end up surreptitiously speaking in a grocery store with their backs turned from each other. One central theme of the movie is what should be considered public space, be it the beach or the seas, where people can act freely.

Censorship in the arts is also a major theme, as highlighted by the opening credits which immediately set the tone of the movie, with the cheeky disclaimer "The pixelisation you see in this film is totally normal. It is not a commentary on censorship. We repeat, it is not a commentary on censorship."  In anticipation of moral codes and standards, the director has humorously "self-censored" his movie using pixelation, including obscuring the view of a glass of liquor, and of Bibi gesturing insolently with her index finger extended as she snaps an Instagram photo with her selfie-stick, which just draws even more attention to what is being censored.  It should be noted that although Bibi has millions of followers on Instagram and generates much revenue from her posts, she is still afraid to post a photo of her face, and only shows partial images of herself.  In one scene,   Barakah stares at a sign on the beach indicating all the banned actions such as swimming, photos, dogs, fires, etc.  This sign is not too dissimilar to ones found in North America, but take on an added meaning in light of the tight rules and regulations upheld in Saudi Arabia.

A subplot involving Barakah cross-dressing to play Ophelia in a local production of Hamlet further distorts the usual gender roles and distribution of power that already seems shifted in the relationship between Bibi and Barakah.  The rehearsal scenes where Barakah is reciting Ophelia's lines are very funny, especially since he still sports his mustache and beard.  In another scene, Bibi wears a fake mustache as she drives off in a red Ferrari (driving by women is prohibited by Saudi clerics).  When we learn that Bibi is a nickname and that her real name is actually also the gender-neutral name Barakah (thus the title of the film), this further adds to the gender fluidity of the pair. Barakah meets Barakah does a good job of showing the development of modern Saudi Arabia as it slowly moves through the social media age of the 21st Century.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

TIFF 2016 - Part 1

Because of my level of membership with TIFF, I have the privilege of watching advanced screenings of movies prior to the start of the film festival, as well as joining press and industry (P&I) screenings during the festival.  In addition to not requiring to pay for these viewings, there is the added advantage of not needing to wait in line for lengthy periods of time in order to secure a decent seat (not too close to the front, in my case).  For most screenings (other than the ones most highly in demand like La La Land), you can waltz into the theatre 5-10 minutes prior to the showing.  Since I don't pay for these movies, I am also more willing to take a risk on plots that don't fall into my usual bailiwick (musicals, comedies, action thrillers).  The movie starts right on time with no warning, trailers or advertisements, so that I don't have to sit through the same commercials over and over again.  This is especially tedious when TIFF does not bother to update the commercial from the previous years, as is the case of the RBC/TIFF sponsored ad "Someday" which has been played so often that the audience has taken to calling out the lines as they are spoken on screen and jeering derisively each time it is shown.

The disadvantage of course is that I don't get the chance to see the director or any stars and there is no Q&A.  I also don't get to sit with a regular audience and be able to feed off their reactions. The crowd that attends the P&I screenings tend to be more staid and reserved.  I also like watching some movies with my husband Rich, who is not currently a TIFF patron member and is not entitled to watch P&I with me.  Accordingly, we usually buy some number of tickets for movies that I schedule in with my press screenings.  It is quite the logistic challenge to fit it all in, but not needing to line up over an hour in advance certainly helps. This year my purchased tickets to P&I ratio is close to 50%-50% and I must admit that the advantages of going to these are starting to outweigh the disadvantages in my mind.  I watched all of the following films either as advanced or P&I screenings:

Ma Vie de Courgette (My Life as Zucchini) is a heart-warming stop motion animation movie that deals with very serious issues in a gentle but direct manner, not glossing over or shying away from fairly dark topics. A little wide-eyed blue haired boy who goes by the nickname Courgette was abandoned by his father and lives with his drunken, abusive mother. Courgette's two most prized possessions are a kite on which he drew a picture of his father as a superhero, and a beer can which reminds him of his mother.

When she dies suddenly (possibly caused accidentally by Courgette), the boy is sent to an orphanage where all the other children have equally traumatic histories. One witnessed her father kill her mother and then himself, one was abandoned by his mother, another child's father is in jail for armed robbery and it is hinted at that an especially traumatized girl may have been sexually abused by her father. Despite their sad pasts, the children receive love and care from the orphanage personnel and learn to trust and rely on each other. It seems amazing that a movie dealing with such a dark premise could be so uplifting, illustrating the resiliency and triumph of the human spirit of the children.  It is impossible not to fall in love with this group of characters with the big soulful eyes. This French-Swiss collaboration won the audience award in the Cannes Film Festival and is the Swiss Best Foreign Film entry for next year's Academy Awards.
  
For the past few years, I have watched a Japanese dramedy during TIFF as well as a few on DVD. From "Departures" about a man who finds his calling as a funeral home encoffiner performing Japanese rituals of preparing the dead for burial, to "Like Father, Like Son" about two families who find out that their young sons had been switched at birth, to "My Little Sister", about three sisters who meet their half sister at their father's funeral, the movies have exhibited a grace, intelligence, sweetness and subtlety that have been a joy to watch in comparison to much of what is offered in North American theatres these days.

This trend continued at this year's TIFF when I watched "The Long Excuse", starring the same actor, Mashiro Motoki, who played the protagonist in Departures, a kind, gentle and generous man who learned to love helping the deceased move on with dignity. Motoki's role in the Long Excuse could not be more of a departure (pun intended) from that previous role. He plays Sachio Kinugasa, a self-centred, self loathing novelist and  minor TV celebrity who has not had a successful book published for years, and who is inconsiderate and uncaring towards his devoted wife Natsuko. Natsuko leaves on a short vacation with her best friend Yoichi and both are killed in a bus accident.  At the same time, Sachio is shown cheating on his wife in what is implied to be a recurring practice. Sachio must re-evaluate his life choices while trying to display an expected level of grief that he does not totally feel.

By contrast, Yoichi's husband Yuki is overwhelmed with grief and unable to cope with raising his young daughter Akari and son Shinpei, who is forced to quit school to take care of his little sister.  After a chance meeting, Sachio's world is turned upside-down when he impulsively offers to look after the two children and learns to truly care for someone other than himself.  The scenes between Sachio and the children are humorous and heart-warming.  One repeated motif of Sachio struggling to ride a bicycle up a big hill while Akari cheers him on from her carrier seat, may be interpreted as a metaphor for Sachio's own struggles, transformation and strengthening of character.

What I appreciated most about this movie, and these Japanese movies in general, is the subtle but poignant ways that a point is made.  In a scene where Sachio is leaving the funeral home with Natsuko's ashes with hoards for reporters filming his exit, he displays a solemn expression in their presence, but immediately checks on his hair and appearance in the mirror once he enters his chauffered limo.  This simple act perfectly captures his nature without a word being spoken.  Towards the end of the movie Sachio defends his choice not to have children of his own by stating that Natsuko hated children and did not want them. This assertion is quietly rebutted when Akari presents him with the gift of a photo of her entire family enjoying a picnic with Natsuko, who is smiling and hugging the children.  Again without a word, the look on Schio's face as he glances at the photo makes it clear that he realizes how wrong he was and how little he understood his wife.

Every year, TIFF's City to City programme features movies from a different city.  This year, the chosen city is Lagos, Nigeria.  This choice made us a bit leery since the last time an African city was spotlighted, the movies were mostly depressing with the synopses dominated by words like "tragic" and "genocide".  To my delight, this year there were several comedies in the mix, including Okafor's Law and The Wedding Party.  Rich was still suspicious since we have experienced watching previous foreign comedies where the humour just does not translate or resonate with us.  I decided to give it a chance and chose "The Wedding Party".

The Wedding Party has all the familiar hijinks and plot tropes as the typical North American romantic comedy, but with more hysterics, beautiful African wardrobe and heavy Nigerian-accented English that was often difficult to understand, especially when the characters are shouting at once. Wealthy reformed playboy Dozie is set to marry the virginous socialite Dunni, despite objections from his snobbish mother, machinations from his ex-girlfriend who is scheming to get him back, a substitute best man who can't do anything right, animosity and competition between the in-laws, unexpected financial problems, a neurotic wedding planner, wedding crashers and issues with the bride's dress and the banquet meal.

What made the movie interesting for me was seeing the different traditions that make up a Nigerian wedding.  From the colourful attire and headdresses worn by the parents, to the chanting and gospel rituals, to the practice of having the families with entourage on the bride and groom's sides to literally dance their way into the reception hall, these cultural differences made this wedding unique.  One major bone of contention between the mothers was over which family would have the honour of dancing in first.  This was a fun movie to watch although a bit more work needs to be done in the final edit with regards to the subtitles.  Often unintelligible dialogue was not subtitled, while more discernible dialogue was.

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is based on the drawings and story of graphic novelist Dash Shaw and has an impressive voice cast including Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Maya Rudolph,  and Susan Sarandon.  It starts off as a portrayal of high school cliques, teenage angst and jealousies but soon evolves into a disaster flick, as surmised by the title of the movie. Due to shoddy construction standards and building on a fault-line, an earthquake causes a high school to collapse and fall into the sea.  Led by self-titled anti-hero Dash and lunch-lady Lorraine, a small group of students try to escape the sinking building while fighting off rising waters, sharks, fires and other obstacles.  This is not a film for children, as Shaw is heavy-handed with his rendering of blood, gore, decapitated heads and body parts in this weird graphic novel based animation.  There is even a warning in the opening credits that the psychedelic colours and spiraling images may cause epileptic fits, or at least will make you feel dizzy, as in my case.

When I read the synopsis on the Japanese movie Rage, I thought I would be watching a taut thriller about the search for a vicious serial killer who might be one of three potential suspects within three different cities. The movie starts off with police detectives investigating a bloody double murder where the murderer scrawled the word "Rage" in blood on the wall.  Through fingerprints they quickly identify the perpetrator, but discover that he had plastic surgery and now they are not quite sure what he looks like. He might be Tetsuya Tashiro, a warehouse worker going under an assumed name in small town Chiba, or Naoto ┼înishi, a gay drifter in Tokyo with a mysterious past, or Shingo Tanaka, a nomad who hides out on a deserted island near Okinawa.

As it turns out, most of this movie was not thrilling at all, but instead spends the next two hours following three very over-wrought and mellow-dramatic subplots before identifying the killer while vindicating the other two suspects in the final ten minutes. The interspersed subplots went on for so long that I partly forgot about the murder aspect until the end. Even the theme of rage seems to only be tenuously explored, and it is interesting to note that the subtitled dialogue translates the word as "Anger".  This movie was well acted, but it was not the one that I was hoping to see.

Movies with incredible plots are all the more poignant when they are based on a true story.  Such is the case with the film Lion, which is based on the real life of Saroo, a little Indian boy living in a small, impoverished village in rural India.  One evening, five-year-old Saroo pesters his beloved brother Guddu into agreeing to take him along on a night job near the train station.  When Guddu does not return after leaving his brother to find out about the job, Saroo accidentally falls asleep on a freight train that departs and travels over two days and thousands of miles away to Calcutta.  Speaking only Hindu and not Bengali, Saroo is unable to ask for help and ends up on the streets for months before being placed in an orphanage.  He mispronounces the name of the village that he is from and only knows his mother's name as "mum".  After months without success in trying to locate his family, who are illiterate and do not gave access to the Calcutta newspapers, Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple and is raised in Tasmania.  Twenty years later, haunted by memories of his original family and racked with guilt about their pain in losing him, Saroo begins a search for his family. He uses data on the speed of the train and length of his travels to create a search radius and then uses Google Earth to help recognize the exact location.  Miraculously after a lengthy process, he is able to find his village, finally reunites with his mother and finds out what happened to his brother.

Excellent performances are given by Dev Patel as the adult Saroo and Nicole Kidman as his adoptive mother Sue. But the true revelation comes from the heart-melting perfomance by little Sunny Pawar who plays the young Saroo.  The first-time actor was chosen from over 4000 children who applied for the part and spoke no English.  Add stunning cinematography filmed in India and Australia, an emotionally evocative score and a compelling story, and you have a winner that will surely generate some Oscar buzz.  The movie ends with footage showing the real Saroo and Sue in India to meet Saroo's biological mother and explains why the movie is titled "Lion".

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Theatre: A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder

A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder is the 2014 Tony Awards Best Musical winner that is based on the 1949 movie "Kind Hearts and Coronets", which is in turn based on a 1907 novel.  Both the movie and the musical follow the same basic premise–a penniless man learns that his mother was disinherited and banished from an aristocratic family for marrying a "commoner beneath her station" and that he is 9th in line to inherit a family fortune and the title of Earl. Bent on revenge for how he and his mother were treated, he decides to bump off the 8 male and female heirs that stand in his way.  In the movie, a young Sir Alec Guinness plays the roles of all the family members in line of succession.  The same tradition is followed in the musical where the same actor plays each of the 6 male and 2 female heirs.  Each relative has a distinctively outlandish look and personality and many of the killings are carried out in a goofy manner.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a satirical black comedy while A Gentlemen's Guide is played more as an upbeat, joyous romp.  It is interesting to compare the differences between the two productions to see how this shift in tone was accomplished.  First, the name of the aristocratic family was changed from the prim and upper-crust sounding D'Ascoyne to much funnier name of D'Ysquith (which sounds like "Die, Squid" when they sing).  In the same vein, the protagonist is renamed from Louis Mazzini to Monty Navarro, and is made to seem more naively roguish and sympathetic in the musical than in the movie.

Even the methods of killing seem quirkier and less aggressive in the musical than the movie.  Whereas Louis Mazzini coldly and slightly menacingly poisons, bombs and shoots his victims (one at point blank range), Monty Navarro's killings are more passive and comical and often accompanied by a hilarious song.  He allows one relative to fall to his death by not lending a hand of support, cuts a hole in ice so that another falls through while skating, causes a third to be stung to death by a swarm of bees, influences a fourth to travel to dangerous lands, allows a fifth to be squashed by a bar bell while lifting weights and a sixth to accidentally shoot herself while acting in a play.  You are so busy laughing at the way Monty's plots play out that you find yourself rooting for him despite his murderous acts.

Both productions are told in flashback and much of the comedy stems from the use of a voice-over by Louis/Monty as he calmly, wryly and often ironically describes his thoughts and the results of his machinations.  Pretending to run out to "save" one of his victims, he dryly notes "needless to say, I was too late...").  A subplot involves Louis/Monty juggling two beautiful women, his mistress Sibella who married another for money instead of marrying him for love, and Edith/Phoebe, the wife/sister of one of his victims.  Whereas in Kind Hearts and Coronets, Sibella is cold and calculating and Edith is prim and inflexible, their counterparts in the musical are giddy, goofy and much more likeable. 
A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder boasts some excellent stagecraft and set design that add to the hilarity of the musical.  Unlike Louis in the movie, Monty does not pre-plan his first murder, but rather takes advantage of the situation at hand.  Reverend Lord Ezekial D'Ysquith takes Monty up to the church parapet to see the view and loses his balance as Monty refuses to help steady him.  Background video is used to show them climbing up the steeple stairs.  When the Reverend falls, the video spirals to simulate his plunge to the ground in a fashion very similar to the video used in Les Miserables when Javert commits suicide and falls into the river.  Similarly when Asquith D'Ysquith, Jr. plummets through the ice that Monty weakened by cutting a hole into it, a video shows the ice cracking along with the appropriate sound effects.

The best staging occurs during the highlight of the second act, which is the song "I've Decided to Marry You".  While Monty is romancing the married Sibella, Phoebe shows up unexpectedly to propose marriage.  Monty quickly hides Sibella in one room while wooing Phoebe in the other and accepting her proposal.  The open set design consisting of a set of doors held up by a frame, allows us to see what is happening in both "rooms" as Monty desperately tries to keep the two women apart and Sibella strains to hear what is going on.  What ensues is a spirited song and choreography as Monty sings "One in the parlor, one in the bedroom, nothing between them but me and a wall!"  I first saw a performance of this song at the 2014 Tony Awards and it immediately piqued my interest in watching the show.

The songs for A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder have catchy tunes and witty lyrics.  My favourites include the opening numbers of the first and second acts, both sung by the chorus.  In "A Warning to the Audience", they caution that "This is a tale of revenge and retribution, so if you're smart, before we start, you'd best depart!".  Even funnier is the song "Why Are All the D'YSquiths Dying", where the mourners lament about having to attend so many funerals and end with the lines "Why are all the D'Ysquiths dying? Whoever's next, I swear I won't come back!  I'm utterly exhausted keeping track.  And most of all, I'm sick of wearing black!"
This show is so much fun that after watching it from our upper balcony seats as part of our Mirvish subscription, we decided to buy Dress Circle seats to watch it again.  When Lord Adalbert D'Ysquith sings the song "I Don't Understand The Poor", he points up to the people in the "cheap seats".  It felt nice on our second viewing, knowing that he was no longer referring to us!  We found that not only could we see better from the closer seats, but we could hear the lyrics better as well.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Contact Photography Festival 2016

Each year during the entire month of May (and into June for some exhibits), the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival is held throughout downtown Toronto, displaying photographic works in art galleries, museums, restaurants, coffee shops, stores and even on exterior walls of buildings.  One of the biggest concentration of locations hosting this event can be found along Queen and King Streets from Spadina Ave. to Gladstone Ave. and this was the area that we concentrated on while partaking in this festival.  Below are descriptions of some of the highlights of our tour.

The most interesting exhibit was called Cutlines, which is held in the currently vacated and soon-to-be-demolished Globe and Mail Press Hall.  The exhibit consists of a selection of 175 Cold War-era (1940s-1990s) photos from the Globe and Mail Archives out of a possible 750,000 print images still in storage.  Unfortunately due to the shift to technology and digital images in the declining newspaper industry, the majority of these historic gems may eventually be destroyed.  When I first saw the photos and noticed the bright orange "cropping" lines drawn on them, I initially thought that the term "cutline" referred to them.  In fact, the term actually refers to the captions or words that the photographer writes on the back of a photo, giving newspaper editors initial indication of what he was trying to capture.

Especially fascinating about this exhibit was the illustration of manual photo-processing techniques that we have since taken for granted in our post-Photoshop world.  This included the physical markings on the images to indicate desired cropping, the highlighting or outlining of various parts of the photo to make them pop (see the creases and collar of the man's suit jacket), and a technique called "rubylith" which uses a type of masking film to transform part of the image into an reddish-orange colour.

Some photos used airbrushing techniques to eliminate unwanted portions of a photo.  In keeping with the Globe and Mail's policy of not printing "sensationalized" images, the 1948 photo of gunned-down robber was requested to be cropped and airbrushed to remove his body and only show the safe that he was trying to crack.  You can see the line drawn on the image and the word "Out" written on it.  Another photo looked like "white-out" or "liquid paper" was applied to obscure whatever was in the background, behind the group of people in the foreground.  One photography technique which we learned from this display was to ask the subject to point at something, in order to put them at ease and allow the pose to appear more natural.

In addition to the print photos displayed in the glass cases, there were also digitized images broadcast on the walls of the old building.  Shot after shot appeared, providing a glimpse into Toronto's recent past.  Following our tour of the Globe and Mail Press Archives, we headed towards 401 Richmond, a complex that contains multiple art galleries, several of them participating in the Contact Photography Exhibit.

The Red Head Gallery had a fascinating exhibit by Gabrielle de Montmollin called "We Shall See What We Shall See" which depicts Canadian images in "lenticular" style by layering 3 photos on top of each other so that the image shifts and transforms as you move across it and view it from left to right.  The majority of the photos deal with Jian Ghomeshi and his court trial.  An image of Ghomeshi in a suit entering the courthouse morphs into a fashion photo of a man choking a woman.  The image of "Big Ears Teddy" morphs into the words "Big Ears Teddy should not see this".

Another gallery had an exhibit called "Jane at Home" which might have been on display in conjunction with the "Jane's Walks" weekend since it was a museum of photos and artifacts in tribute of journalist, author and activist Jane Jacobs.  In addition to photos of her in her Toronto home and with her children and grandchildren, we saw a recreation of her study and writing desk, as well as personal items such as her iconic glasses and a "hearing horn", the sight of which mostly caused people to speak louder as opposed to actually amplifying the voices.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Theatre: Reframed

Basing a live musical on a famous painting is not a new concept.  The most famous example of this is Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, inspired by the 1884 pointillism painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" by George Seurat, depicting Parisians out for a weekend stroll.  Sondheim's musical allows these characters to come to life and interact with Seurat so that we can find out their back-stories.

The Acting Up Stage Company is a Canadian theatre group dedicated to performing contemporary musicals and developing and producing original, new musicals.  We have watched and thoroughly enjoyed many of their excellent productions in the past, including Wild Party, John and Jen, Craigslist: Do You Want What I Have Got, Parade, Ride the Cyclone, and Tick, Tick Boom. A second mandate for this group is to train, mentor, support and promote Canadian musical theatre writers via a teaching program called "NoteWorthy" which pairs up lyricists and composers to create mini 10-20 minute musicals as teaching exercises.  A popular assignment for the NoteWorthy group involves picking an image out of a book of paintings and using that image as the inspiration for the musical.

Extrapolating on this idea and taking it to the next level, the artistic director Mitchell Marcus negotiated a partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) whereby three teams of writers and composers would each create a 20-minute musical based on one of the paintings found in the Richard Barry Fudger Memorial Gallery, where the artworks are hung side by side from floor to ceiling in "Paris-salon" style.  Furthermore, the resultant shows would be performed right in the gallery, with the paintings of choice as a backdrop.  And so, the unique presentation called "Reframed" was brought to life.

The three paintings selected were "The Marchesa Casati" by Welsh painter Augustus John (1919), The Young Botanist by Canadian painter Paul Peel (1891), and He is Coming by Dutch painter Otto Willem Albertus Roelofs (late 19th Century).   The audience sat in several rows of folding chairs arranged in a semi-circle on the floor of the Fudger Gallery.  The same three actors, Eliza-Jane Scott, Tim Funnell and Kaylee Harwood, performed in all three musicals and it was interesting to watch each of them playing very different roles in quick succession.  The three musicals were performed with minimal sets, props or costumes and the actors spoke and sang their lines with scripts in their hands, so that it felt like we were watching a technical run-through rather than a full performance.  The musical accompaniment was provided by a three-piece orchestra consisting of a piano, cello and woodwinds.

Because the musicals were performed in a small space not meant for such activity (with poor sight-lines for all but those sitting in the front rows, poor acoustics and limited lighting options), the audience was provided with libretto of the three shows so that we could follow along with the dialogue and the singing.  Despite the fact that the actors had to glance at their scripts occasionally and missed a line or stage direction once in a while, they were obviously very talented and the informal presentation added to the charm of the intimate setting.

The first musical was called "La Casati" (Music/Lyrics by Bryce Kulak Book/Lyrics by Erin Shields).  It is based on Augustus John's provocative portrait of Marchesa Luisa Casati, the vain, flamboyant and extravagant Italian heiress who is portrayed with flaming red hair and large piercing eyes that defiantly stare straight ahead, as opposed to the typical demure portraits of women of that time.  At one point, Luisa owned the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, which was subsequently bought by Peggy Guggenheim and is now home to the latter's famous art museum.   Known for her wild hairstyles, outrageous clothing and love of exotic pets, Luisa, who was also John's lover, frivolously spent all of her fortune and died penniless in London.

According to the stage directions of the libretto, the musical starts with the elderly La Casati "sitting on a throne in her crumbling Venetian Palace surrounded by two cheetahs, a gray hound, a parrot and a boa constrictor".  Obviously much of this was left to the imagination.  Augustus John arrives to beg her to stop her excessive spending and they reminisce about the old days when they first met.  John sings of her "eyes, drowning in pools of kohl" and as he describes her, the third actress enters playing the young Luisa and asks that he immortalizes her through portraiture.  John agrees but demands that she forego all her usual masks and costumes so that he can paint the real her–"I don't jewelry, I don't want paint ... you've got to let it show .. inside those eyes".  Eventually the scene fades back to the present where La Casati is left alone with her portraits, which she will have to sell to pay off her debts.

The second musical called "The Preposterous Posthumous Predicament of Paulie Peel" (Music/Lyrics by Kevin Wong, Book by Julie Tepperman) is inspired by the painting "The Young Botanist" by Canadian artist Paul Peel, who tragically died of a lung infection at age 31, just a year after he painted this whimsical portrait of an innocent young boy (possibly his son?) looking with fascination at a frog.  The musical imagines how the boy and his mother (named Paulie and Pauline for the musical) might be be coping with Paul's untimely death, and is the most poignant of the three short plays.  The scene opens with Paulie spotting and chasing a frog in the ravine behind his house, then quickly switches to Paul Peel's funeral where we learn through flashbacks that he and Paulie shared a love for Biology.  We find out that Paulie believes his father has been reincarnated as the frog that he captured and it is this belief that helps him come to terms with Paul's death and to bond and reconnect with his grieving mother.  Pauline sings a heart-wrenching song called "What Do I Do Now" and converses with the frog/Paul who, in between croaks of "Ribbit", advises Paulie and Pauline to listen to each other.  This short musical was so touching that there were audible sniffles and signs of weepiness throughout the audience–not bad for a 20 minute segment.

The third musical titled He Is Coming, the same as the painting, (Music/Lyrics by Britta Johnson, Book by Sara Farb) was the least effective, probably because the least amount of background information was known about the painting or the painter.  Accordingly, there was not the same point of reference as with the other two and the plot was based mostly on the title of the painting as opposed to the subject matter.  In the musical, Irene, a 92-year-old artist is waiting to be evicted from her apartment.  While she waits, she reminisces and her past portraits of friends and family come to life and talk to her.  There is Charlotte, a glamorous young movie star, 50-year-old Marvin who thinks his portrait makes him look mean, Janet, who was painted nude, and finally Irene's husband Bill who she dances with.

All three plays felt a bit like light opera, in the vein as Stephen Sondheim's latter work "Passions" or Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Aspects of Love" and each had a sombre, wistful air.  The actors ran around the room and weaved in and out of the audience throughout each of the musicals.  This was a really unique, enjoyable experience in a cool setting and the three actors did a really good job with these original works. Yet, I think the concept of basing a mini musical on a painting would work just as well if not better on an actual stage where we could see and hear properly.  I would love it if Acting Up Stage tried this again, and maybe tackled some more recent art movements like Pop Art (Andy Warhol, Roy Litchenstein, etc.) and maybe some happier subject matters.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Theatre: Chiamerica

It may seem strange that an event as horrific, shocking and impactful as the Tiananmen Square Massacre should be more well-known around the world than it is within Mainland China where the incident occurred, but this is exactly the case.  Such is the power of censorship and propaganda control within China that many of the younger generation have never heard of the massacre and do not believe that it actually happened.  My husband Rich experienced this first-hand when he casually asked a younger co-worker who had recently emigrated from China what she thought about what happened in Tiananmen Square.  She was perplexed and had no idea what he was talking about!

These are the details that are commonly understood to be true within the Western world: Triggered by the death of deposed Communist Party General Secretary and liberal-reform advocate Hu Yaobang in April 1989, a student-led protest gained support with the general population across China, swelling to 1 million people at its peak.  Although Tiananmen Square has become the symbolic "ground zero" of the protest, additional pockets of uprising  sprang up on other  streets of Beijing and even in surrounding towns and villages.The protesters demanded freedom of speech, freedom of the press, government accountability, and workers' rights.  The situation came to a head in Tiananmen Square on June 3-5, 1989 when the hard-line government ordered the People's Liberation Army to suppress the crowds through military force including the use of assault rifles and tanks.

Although the Chinese Government claimed that there were little to no casualties actually in Tiananmen Square, varying reports assert that between hundreds to thousands of unarmed citizens were killed there during the massacre.  These casualty estimates may be strongly disputed by the Government, but what is undeniable is the existence of bullet holes that pierced the People's Statue that stands prominently in Tiananmen Square, and which still can be seen today.  We saw them up-close when we visited Beijing in 2009, and also were quite aware of the plain-clothed undercover police that patrolled the area.

On June 5, 1989, after the protests had been quashed and the crowds dispersed, a line of tanks slowly rolled out of Tiananmen Square.  An unidentified man holding plastic bags in each hand boldly strolled out in front of the lead tank, blocking its path and bringing the entire procession to a halt.  Showing unexpected restraint, the lead tank tried to drive around the man, rather than mowing him down.  But the man, who came to be known as the "Tank Man", shifted left and right to continue to block the vehicles.  At one point, he even climbed on top of the lead tank and spoke to the driver through the hatch, before resuming his position in front of the tanks.  Finally a group of people pulled Tank Man away.  Whether these people were friends trying to hide him or authorities wanting to arrest him is undetermined.  To this day, his identity and fate is unknown, but the legacy of his brave act of peaceful civil disobedience has been forever immortalized via iconic photographs and news videos that were seen around the world.

Inspired by the famous image, British playwright Lucy Kirkwood wrote the play "Chiamerica" that prophesizes about what might have happened to Tank Man.  The term "Chimerica", a portmanteau amalgamating China and America, was coined by British historian Niall Ferguson, referring to the co-dependent relationship between the two super powers.

The main plot of the play follows fictional photojournalist Joe Schofield as he captures the photo of Tank Man in 1989.  On a return business trip to Beijing 20 years later, he gets a tip from his old friend and contact Zhang Lin that Tank Man might be alive and living in New York City.  Trying to recapture some of the former glory from his most triumphant achievement, Joe single-mindedly pursues clues and leads in his search for Tank Man, crossing ethical and moral boundaries and hurting innocent people along the way.

Chimerica has a fascinating premise that is unfortunately bogged down by too many themes and story-lines, too many scene changes and too many characters, with a cast of 12 actors, some playing multiple roles.  The first act itself is 1.5 hours long and the entire play runs 3 hours and 10 minutes including intermission.  In addition to the mystery of who and where is Tank Man, there are many other sub-plots to follow and keep track of.

Zhang Lin is haunted by memories of his fiancee Liuli who was killed during the Tiananmen Square Massacre and blogs about his trauma.  In a beautiful piece of staging, flashbacks depict the relationship of the young and innocent lovers Zhang Lin and Liuli, dressed in white in the foreground, while old Zhang Lin types on his computer in the background.  In Lin's visions of Liuli after she is killed, she is dressed in bright red to symbolize blood and death.  His feelings of resentment towards the Chinese Government are further stoked by the smog-pollution related death of his 59-year-old landlady.  Zhang Lin's rebellious actions lead to his arrest and torture and impact his poor put-upon brother Zhang Wei who is deemed guilty by association.

Joe carries on an affair with British market researcher Tess, who specializes in teaching North American companies how to market to China, but loses her when his Tank Man obsession takes priority over their relationship.  Playwright Kirkwood uses Tess' character to sheds light on the dichotomy between East and West, highlighting their differences in terms of social, political, economical and cultural characteristics and the importance of recognizing and respecting Chinese culture when trying to market to them.  It also explores the rise of the East as a growing economic power and the impact on Western economies.

The frequent and quick scene changes in Chiamerica jump both in locale (between various spots in New York vs scenes in Beijing) and time (from the present in 2012 to flashbacks of 1989).  The innovative set and staging help to keep the audience oriented as to where and when the scene occurs.  The set consists of a floor-to-ceiling rotating wall that spins around to reveal the different scenes, usually with the set of New York locations on one side of the wall and those of Beijing on the other.  Occasionally, when Joe and Zhang Lin are speaking to each other on their phones, both sides of the wall are visible at the same time.  Each time the wall spins around, a video projection of the location and date helps keep the audience keep track of where and when the next scene takes place.  Video is also used to project news reels and other images on the wall, and is used very effectively to portray text from Zhang Lin's protest blogs that he types on his computer.  The final reveal that re-enacts the actions of Tank Man, merging live action with photographic imagery, is also superbly done.  One of the most satisfying and poignant plot points occurs at the end of the play, when it is revealed what Tank Man carried in his plastic bags.

Almost as interesting as the play itself was the Question and Answer period or Talkback session that occurred in the Lobby afterwards, which was attended by five of the supporting cast members (none of the leads took part).  We learned that a lengthy speech given by Tess was added to provide a more balanced portrayal of East versus West.  For most of the play, Chimerica does not pull any punches when commenting on China's dismal track record with regards to human rights, censorship, torture, disregard for the environment, greed and corruption.  In the added monologue, Tess argues that China is not that different than the United States who are guilty of many of the same sins.

We also learned that most of the Asian actors did not speak Mandarin, despite it being prominently featured in the play.  Instead they had a Mandarin coach who helped them learn the words phonetically.  Several of the Chinese actors speak Cantonese, which has very different pronunciation than Mandarin, while one actress is Filipino and the lead actor who played Zhang Lin is Korean.

An uncomfortably awkward but enlightening question came from a theatre student who, based on her accent, must have just recently arrived from China.  She was extremely emotional and outraged at what she perceived as Western propaganda that smeared the good reputation of her homeland and demanded repeatedly to be given proof of violence and torture that was portrayed.  This seemed like yet another example of how effective China's propaganda machine is, when an entire generation of Chinese youth have no knowledge of China's history of human rights violations, past or present.  It is one thing to read about this phenomenon, but quite another to witness it first-hand.