Monday, September 19, 2016

Theatre: Stratford - A Little Night Music

I am usually reluctant to trek all the way to the Stratford Festival to watch a show since there is so much excellent theatre in Toronto, usually costing less money and definitely saving on the travel time and expense to get there.  More importantly, there are typically not many Stratford shows that interest me since I am not that fond of Shakespeare and the musicals traditionally mounted are the old-standbys such as Fiddler on the Roof, Man of La Mancha, or Sound of Music, which I have already seen many times before–in other words, safe and boring!

I was pleasantly surprised by the 2016 season where the festival seemed to branch out beyond the mundane in their selection of shows, and even came up with a musical that I had not yet seen live.  This is Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 Tony Award winning “A Little Night Music”, arguably his most commercial and relatable work in terms of theme, music and lyrics. Inspired by the 1955 Swedish filmSmiles of a Summer Night”, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, the musical deals with the romantic entanglements of various couples—young, mature, servant and upper class pairings.

Middle-aged, widowed lawyer Fredrik Egerman has married his much younger, virginal trophy bride Anne, who has withheld conjugal interactions with him for the past 11 months since their wedding.  Fredrik re-encounters his former lover, the glamorous actress Desiree Armfeldt and old sparks reignite.  Desiree is currently having an affair with the pompous Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, who in turn is married to Charlotte, a friend of Anne’s.  Added to the mix is Fredrik’s brooding son Henrik who is secretly in love with Anne, the Egermans' flirty, promiscuous maid Petra, Desiree’s daughter (not so coincidentally named Fredrika) and Desiree's worldy-wise mother Madame Armfeldt. 

Desiree asks her mother to arrange a weekend gathering at her country estate, allowing all the characters to converge and interact.  The hi-jinx over the weekend include schemes to induce jealousy, a failed suicide attempt and a Russian roulette duel.  Eventually the various relationships sort themselves out and the proper couples pair up in the end.

As always Sondheim's lyrics dazzle with intricate rhymes ("penchant/trenchant", "faded/jaded", "flustered/blustered") and witty duets where the back-and-forth dialogue between the participants feel like the thrust and parry of a fencing match (Fredrik/Desiree - You Must Meet My Wife, Fredrik/Carl-Magnus - It Would Have Been Wonderful, Charlotte/Anne - Every Day A Little Death).  The most impressive song that closes Act I involves all the characters preparing for and traveling to "A Weekend In The Country".  This is an extended ensemble number that according to Sondheim "tells a story with motivations and complications within the song form", requiring complicated choreography and on-the-fly set changes.  Sondheim's most commercially successful and memorable song, Send In the Clowns, reflecting on the regrets of lost chances at love, was written as an afterthought late in the development of the show.

My first encounter with A Little Night Music was the 1977 movie adaptation of the same name, starring Len Cariou as Fredrik, Elizabeth Taylor as Desiree, Diana Rigg as Charlotte and Lesley-Anne Down as Anne.  While this was a passable attempt at capturing the musical, the singing efforts left much to be desired.  Many wonderful songs were deleted (including Liasons, In Praise of Women, The Miller's Son) or shortened/rewritten ("The Glamorous Life, Night Waltz, A Weekend in the Country") for time constraints, while the presence of a Greek-chorus singing quartet was eliminated. 

Watching the full theatre production of this Sondheim gem at Stratford, with trained actors who sang beautifully and had impeccable comedic timing, was such a joy.  The standout performances for me were the hilarious deliveries of Ben Carlson (Fredrik) debating his seduction strategies in the song Now, Juan Chioran (Carl-Magnus) waivering between pompous self-assuredness and insecurity while singing In Praise of Women, and veteran Stratford actress Cynthia Dale (Charlotte) lamenting her husband's infidelities in "Every Day A Little Death".  Yanna McIntosh (Desiree)'s rendition of Send In The Clowns was aptly heartbreaking, full of wistful disappointment tinged with a hint of bitterness.

I recently rented the DVD of Ingmar Bergman's classic Smiles of a Summer Night, in order to compare this source material with the musical that it inspired.  Although I had to quickly read English subtitles to follow the quick Swedish repartee, there was still time to admire the wit and intelligence of the dialogue.  I was very impressed with what an excellent job that Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim did in capturing all the intricate plot points of the movie and incorporating them into delightful songs that both advance the story and give insight into the personalities and motivations of the characters.  As I watched the movie, I could easily identify the moments where I expected the actors to burst into the songs that I am now so familiar with.  There were a few changes in plot that I noticed, including changing Desiree (and Fredrik's?) child from a five-year-old boy (a non-speaking role in the movie) to a 14-year-old daughter who features much more prominently in the musical and even has a song to sing—"A Glamorous Life" in reference to her mother Desiree.  Another change in plot was a minor point that was probably made to add more humour to the situation.  In the movie, Desiree's weekend invitation to the country is extended to the families of both her former lover Fredrik and her current lover Carl-Magnus.  In the musical, Carl-Magnus and Charlotte scheme to crash the party ("A weekend in the country ... How I wish we'd been asked ... We'll go masked" ¹). 

The final major deviation from the movie relates to the Egerman's maid Petra, who hooks up with the Armfeldt's servant Frid.  In the movie, these two characters are of major importance and become the fourth couple in the romantic comedy.  They are even prominently featured in the film's promotional photos and the cover of the DVD.  Frid poetically vocalizes the theme that harks back to the film's title—there are three smiles between midnight and daybreak, the first for young lovers, the second for the fools and the third for the sad and dejected.  In the musical, Frid's role is almost totally eliminated and it is Madame Armfeldt who describes the three smiles, changing the last one to the smile for the old.  While Petra wants to marry Frid in the movie, in the musical she is more ambitious and wistful for a better life and a higher station, as she describes in the beautiful song "The Miller's Son" (".. Or I shall marry the Prince of Wales" ¹).

It was so fulfilling for me to watch a more obscure musical that is not often mounted and which I had not experienced live before.  Unfortunately for the 2017 season, Stratford is back to the same old, same old with the offerings of Guys and Dolls and HMS Pinafore.  Granted that I may be in the minority in my desire for lesser known or new musicals.  It is probably good economic sense to pick a tried and true production that caters to the masses.  But for me, I will stick to Toronto's many smaller theatres in my search for exciting, edgy new shows to watch.


¹ Lyrics quoted from A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim

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".