Sunday, September 30, 2012

Nuit Blanche 2012

We're having a tougher time enjoying Nuit Blanche these days since it has become a victim of its own success.  The more popular and presumably better projects are swarmed with people which result in wait times of sometimes over an hour.  Since this is longer than we have the patience to wait for a single event, we bypassed them and headed for the more accessible exhibits.  Possibly it was our own fault for not having more perseverance,  but the bottom line was that we were disappointed with what we saw.  There was not the wow factor of previous years.  The other issue could have been that we picked the financial/entertainment district which was easy to get to from our home, as opposed to the Queen West area where the projects seemed edgier and more interesting.  This stemmed from memories of previous years where we were trapped out in that area in the wee hours, unable to get onto any of the packed streetcars in order to return home.  So we can only blame ourselves and will try harder next year.

The presentation we enjoyed the most was the silent movies at TIFF accompanied by the live piano accompaniment.  We stayed for 3 very old films.  The first was a 1902 version of Jack and the Beanstock by Thomas Edison which looked like a filming of a stage play. The negative was so worn that we could see scratches on the film at one point.  There were no special effects to speak of, so the giant was just a very tall guy.  The second was a 1918 movie called "The Cook" starring Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle as a waiter and a cook in a restaurant.  Their physical comedy transcends the need for dialogue.  A very funny recurring joke shows the cook producing all sorts of meals and drinks from the same huge vat, then tossing the dishes at the waiter who deftly catches them just as he walks into the kitchen. At the end, Fatty takes his hat and coat out of the vat to go home.  Fatty also stars in the next film called the "Reckless Romeo" who gets in trouble when he flirts with other women and is caught by his wife.  All 3 clips can be found on YouTube.

Speaking of YouTube, another showing at TIFF focused on videos from YouTube.  The show was really lame, from the two young hosts trying to be hip, to the quiz show and sing-along components.  The only mildly amusing part was when they showed a trailer of Mrs Doubtfire re-cut as a horror movie.  The third theatre was showing 101 zombie killings from various bad zombie movies.  The last feature at TIFF was a video of a lighthouse floating in the middle of the English Channel that made me seasick to watch.

A few other minor highlights included the Green Invaders that looked like primitive, early video game characters that either raised their hands in a smile, or lowered them in a frown.  It did not seem like any interaction from the crowd was controlling them as they randomly appeared in different numbers and positions.  Skylum was a giant floating blimp that had lights which responded to movements underneath it.  There was a huge lineup to get into the Commerce Court for Water Will Be There.  We didn't want to wait for this so we couldn't see what was happening inside.  But walking by the outside was entertaining as we saw the shadows of the participants walk by giant screens showing water and nature scenes.  They were hamming it up by making gestures and shadow puppets so possibly they knew they were being watched.

Most of the other exhibits that we saw consisted of videos and sculptures that we didn't find very interesting.  There was a tower made of old computer parts, a lighthouse with a very faint beacon in Brookfield place that was drastically outclassed by its beautiful surroundings and a video that showed plant growth sped up with stop motion photography.  In a glass case in front of First Canadian Place, some kid was solving a Rubic's Cube but after watching for a few minutes, we didn't think he was very particularly fast at it so we didn't see the point.

Actually three of the most memorable attractions for us were not even officially part of Nuit Blanche.  First was the polenta coated fish taco with sweet slaw, avocado cream, peach salsa and cilantro I got from the Gourmet Bitches food truck.  We were amused by the lady in front of us who didn't want to order the "Bitchin' Fries" by name because she didn't want to swear.  The joint that was the most hopping was the Virgin Records DJ booth which was blasting music while the crowd danced in the streets.  And finally an impromptu video game that seemed like Tetris on a pirate ship, complete with cool sound effects was being broadcast above the SEARS logo at the Eaton Centre.  It was powered by some random guy and his laptop but it was so much fun to watch.

We've pledged to do better research next year and maybe even wait in line once or twice in search of a more satisfying Nuit Blanche experience.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Free Concerts 2012 at Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre

As autumn approaches, another season of free concerts in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons for the Performing Arts has begun.  One hour concerts at noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays (and sometimes Wednesdays noon or 5:30pm) feature either piano, jazz, dance, vocal, chamber music or world music performances.

We watched the Dave Young Quartet play a jazz set which included songs by Oscar Peterson (Wheatland), Rogers and Hart (Falling in Love with Love), and some Glenn Gould Bach-inspired music as a tribute to what would have been Gould's 80th birthday.

The quartet was led unusually by the bass player, Dave Young, with Kevin Turcotte on trumpet, Robi Botos on piano and his brother Frank Botos on drums.  Unlike the role of the bass player in most bands, Dave Young carried the melody on many of the songs. He even played some tunes using his bow, which I've never seen in jazz before.  My favourite songs featured Turcotte playing a muted trumpet.  I really like that sound.

For the first time in many years, I was able to get a seat for one of these free concerts.  When I first started going about 4 years ago, you could show up to the noon concert at 11:45am and still get a seat.  Within a few years, the popularity of these concerts grew and even by 11:30am, it was standing room only, with the doors closing due to capacity shortly after.  I've always wondered how early you now had to come to get one of the 100 spots on the amphitheatre style seating that faced the concert.  This year since I was not working, I showed up really early and got my answer.  You need to be in line by 11:10am or forget about it.  Although it was great to finally be able to watch the concert from the proper vantage point, it was hard on my lower back to sit on the steps without a back rest.

There was a row of chairs on the floor above the concert, situated behind the performers.  After a while, I almost wished I was sitting there since at least they had back support.  This is also where wheelchairs could be positioned.  It was amusing to watch the row of people that sat above.  I was surprised to see a number of them reading, napping or even doing a crossword puzzle during the performance.  I guess they were multitasking while enjoying the music.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

TIFF 2012

Thanks to our good friend Peter who is a patrons member at TIFF, Rich and I were given the chance to attend a couple of pre-festival events that each involved a cocktail reception on the rooftop of the Bell Lightbox.  Needless to say, the views were spectacular and great hors d'oeuvres were provided by Oliver&Bonacini who own the restaurants at this venue.

The first event was a sneak peek screening of the movie Arbitrage starring Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon. A corporate thriller about a hedge fund magnate who is in over his head on several fronts, this movie was not showing at TIFF and had not been released to the theatres yet, so we really did get an early look.  The second event was even more exciting, since it had all the programmers in the festival reveal their picks for favourite movies within their programmes.  Each one provided the hot pick that had the most buzz, a hidden gem and their personal favourite.  This was valuable information that was provided the night before we had to make our movie picks and resulted in our making a few last minute adjustments to our choices.

This was the first year that we were not working during TIFF.  We celebrated by watching a slew of movies - the total was somewhere around 28+, averaging 2-3 per day for the 11 day run.  With the luxury of time and a wide open schedule, we were able to pick a good mix of genres, countries, a few with big stars, and even a selection of documentaries and one short film series.  We saw comedies, romantic comedies, dramas, thrillers, action, and even a horror-comedy film (which I was peer-pressured into watching).  We watched movies from Canada, USA, Ireland, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Germany, France, Lebanon, Sweden, Bulgaria, Spain, Australia, UK, and Senegal.  That many movies will always range in quality and entertainment factor, which to some degree depends on personal taste.  While there were movies we loved and some that were just OK, there were only 3 that we regretted watching, which is a pretty good average.

There were too many movies to describe them all, so I'll just concentrate on my highlights and "low-lights".  We had four favourites which were The Sapphires, Thieves, Key of Life and The Attack. 

The Sapphires is loosely based on the true story of four Australian Aboriginal girls who formed a singing group and went to Vietnam to entertain the troops.  This movie had everything including comedic moments, great 60s music, a budding romance, serious themes regarding Aboriginal separation where children were taken from their families and tension that arose from the dangers of being in the middle of the Vietnam war.

Thieves is an action-packed, fun-filled jewel heist caper that felt like Ocean's Eleven on speed.  Two rival gangs, one Korean and one Chinese, band together to rob a casino that is storing a magnificent gem.  Many of the members have their own motivations and hidden agendas as double-crosses pile up one on top of another.  In addition to the expected car chases, there is an amazing high-wire chase scene where the protagonists swing from building to building and floor to floor.

Key of Life is a hilarious screwball comedy about Sakurai, a down-on-his-luck actor, who switches places with Kondo, a wealthy man who slips on a bar of soap in a bathhouse and develops amnesia.  Sakurai soon discovers that his new identity is that of a professional assassin, while Kondo embraces his presumed life as a struggling actor.  Further complicating matters is Kanae, a highly organized and motivated female executive who has scheduled her wedding date and now just needs to find the candidate to play the groom. 

The Attack is a powerful drama whose back-story is as interesting as its plot.  The movie is about an Arab surgeon who lives in Israel, and has integrated and is accepted by the Israeli people.  His world is turned upside down when he learns that his beloved wife has just set off a suicide bomb in a busy restaurant, killing a bunch of children at a birthday party in the process.  The rest of the movie deals with him trying to understand why she did it and who influenced her.  At the Q&A, the Lebanese director explained that it was illegal for himself and his actors to shoot the movie in Israel and Palestine.  He had to appeal to the Lebanese government and the leader of Hezbollah to get permission.

Every year, we try to watch a Midnight Madness movie.  Starting at 11:59pm, these movies often fall in the horror genre, or are action thrillers that are much darker and more violent. The crowds at Midnight Madness are wild, rowdy and boisterous and often clap, cheer or shout out in the middle of the movie.


This year the big buzz movie was Seven Psychopaths, which boasted an all-star cast including Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Abbie Cornish, Tom Wait and Olga Kurylenko.  Marty (Farrell) is a writer who needs inspiration for his book called Seven Psychopaths so his friend Billy (Rockwell) puts an ad in the paper to try to find some for him to meet.  In the meantime, Billy is in cahoots with Hans (Walken) to steal dogs and then return them for the reward money.  Problems ensue when they accidentally steal the dog of a vicious mobster (Harrelson).  This movie was very funny in the beginning but drags a bit towards the end.

The best short film that we saw was called "Canoejacked" about two convicts who escape into the wilderness while being chased by a law enforcer.  They spot a canoe and decide to steal it for their getaway, but when the owner, a nudist catches them, they take him along for the ride.  My new favourite word is the coined phrase from the movie - canoe-dist .. or is it can-nudist?

We did not like The Walls of Dakar about the graffiti culture in Senegal.  The movie was so boring and unstructured that when I woke up part way through the film, more than half the original audience had left.  This was extra disappointing since it was one of the top picks from the programmer.  I guess we need to take those recommendations with a grain of salt. 

After watching The Color of the Chameleon, we felt that we had fulfilled TIFF's slogan for this year, which was .. "From OMG to WTF".  We definitely experienced the latter after walking out of this film, scratching our heads and wondering what the heck that was all about.

Word on the Street 2012

This year I attended Word on the Street for the first time.  It is a festival that celebrates books, authors, publishers and readers, bringing all these elements together on one day.  It is held at Queen's Park and features stalls representing major and minor Canadian publishers of books, magazines, and newspapers, as well as authors promoting their latest works through book signings and readings.  Larger tents of various themes had events scheduled throughout the day.

At the "Vibrant Voices of Ontario" tent which focused on local authors and stories, we attended our first event called "We Love Toronto: Books Inspired by the City".   Four authors, whose works of fiction or non fiction each used Toronto as the setting, read excerpts from their books and then answered questions.

"Oranges and Lemons" by Liz Bugg follows lesbian detective Cali Barrow on a new case.  Her home and office are set in the Kensington Market neighbourhood, while a boxing scene is based on the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club.  The author read with a melodramatic tone that perhaps surpassed the actual words on the page, which I found a bit off-putting and distracted me from the narrative.

Edward Keenan, editor of GRID magazine, wrote the soon to be published "Some Great Idea: Good Neighbourhoods, Crazy Politics and the Invention of Toronto".  He asked the audience whether they would rather hear an excerpt about how great Toronto is, or one about Mayor Rob Ford.  Of course, we went for the potentially more scandalous topic.  Rather than dwelling on Ford's recent slip-ups, Keenan's excerpt dealt with his time traveling around Toronto with Rob Ford when he was still a councilor.  Ford took pride in seeking out his constituents, even at their homes, in an attempt to solve their problems.  The reading was followed by an interesting discussion about how the tactics that endeared Ford to his constituents as a councilor did not work in the role of the mayor.   Because Keenan had not previously intended to discuss this particular topic, he had not printed out the section and had to read the text from his smart phone.


"Hope and Heartbreak in Toronto" by Peter Robinson sounded like a romance novel until we heard the subtitle: Life as a Maple Leafs Fan.  He has a knack of spinning the tale of his personal experiences as he describes his devotion to the Maple Leafs despite their decades long losing slump.  He compares how the Leafs make him feel to a sadomasochistic scene he witnessed looking into the window of a brothel in Hanover, Germany. 

Julie Wilson has an interesting premise for her book called "Seen Reading".  When she sits on Toronto transit, she watches other people reading, taking note of the reader, the book and the page number being read.  From each interaction, she is inspired to write a small snippet of fiction, no more than several paragraphs long.  The quote she liked to use to describe the readers she witnesses is "If I am a voyeur, then you are all exhibitionists".

At the Scotiabank Giller Prize Bestsellers tent, there was a huge crowd gathered to hear Gail Vaz-Oxlade, the star of the TV show "Til Debt Do Us Part" talk about her best selling book "Debt Free Forever".  We did not stumble upon this talk in time for the book discussion but did make it to hear the tail end of the Q&A.  Gail sounds just like she does on TV.  In her booming, sassy voice, she gives motivational, no-nonsense straight talk about debt, finances, mortgage.  There was a hilarious discussion about the high cost of divorce (she's split up 3 times and declared no more!) that brought to mind the lyrics from the old song - "you better keep her i think it's cheaper, then makin' whoopee".

At the Penguin Pavilion tent, promoting books published by Penguin Books, we listened to celebrity chef Mark McEwan and food writer Jacob Richler (son of Mordecai) be interviewed by the owner of the Cookbook Store.  They talked about past and current restaurant trends, what and how they cooked in their personal time, and their thoughts on banning items such as fois gras.  Jacob's book title "My Canada Includes Fois Gras" says it all.

The Scribendi Workshop Marquee Tent focused on talks and workshops to help the fledgling writer.  I just made it to the end of one of the most entertaining, useful or mortifying workshops, depending on your point of view.  Writers were given the opportunity to anonymously submit a 1 minute sample of their draft work.  This would be evaluated by professionals including a published novelist who teaches at the Humber School for Writing and a publisher.  The snippets were read aloud by the host of the session while the the judges took notes and occasionally stopped the reading in mid sentence (think American Idol tryouts) indicating they had heard enough.  Their constructive criticism pulled no punches.  Once they even burst out laughing at a sentence that was obviously not meant to be funny, which caused the rest of the audience to laugh, and probably made the author secretly cringe.  The writeup on the event did say you need a thick skin to participate.

Subsequent lectures dealt with tips on how to get published as well as details about self publishing and publishing in electronic formats (e-books) as opposed to traditional paper format (p-books).  Much was stressed about how the publishing part was just half the battle while self promotion of your book was equally if not more important.  The use of social media such as Facebook, Blogging, Twitter now seems to be a major component of book promotions.

Back at the Scotiabank Giller Prize Bestsellers Stage, noted environmentalist David Suzuki and economist Jeff Rubin discussed the interconnections between ecology and economy as part of their 10 city Canadian "Ecotour".  Rubin theorized that continually rising oil prices will lead to slower economic growth, which could actually result in fewer carbon emissions.  It may also lead to a change in our way of living.  Since oil is the main, if not only fuel used in transportation, the costs of importing and exporting could grow to an unsustainable level.  This could result in a less global economy where we once more rely on local manufacturing and stay closer to home, both in terms of commuting to work and to travel. 

There were many other interesting talks and unfortunately we could not get to more of them since they were all scheduled at the same time.  Looking forward to next year.