We took up most of the row in the cinema. Nine pals who remembered when rock was young, hoping for the biggest kick we ever got…Okay, I’ll stop now with the Bernie Taupin lyrics, exceptlawdy mama, what happened to the second half?
Rocketman is a great ride. It’s a better ride than the current incarnation of Aladdin, now beating Rocketman at the box office, but don’t you dare come at me for going to see it: it has a magic carpet and 🎵 A Whole New World 🎵and that’s enough for me (and my young pals who joined me when I asked, Will you take your Auntie Anne to the movies?)
Rocketman begins with a full list of confessions. Elton John listing all of his addictions and we’re off, watching little Elton Sad Boy become big Elton Star Boy through a trippy set of brilliant musical sequences. At some point, the little Elton (known as Reggie then) and Big Elton meet one another in this musical mirage and little Sad Boy asks big Star Boy for a hug. Right there we are in the zeitgeist proper and nobody can quibble with therapy and all of its attendant hopeful outcomes. Nor can we fault the soft lens on a long friendship: Elton John’s celebrated partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin is the heart of the film— and the most intriguing. These two talents worked separately. How they collaborated is one of the film’s more accurate threads. The star gave his blessing to this film, signing on as executive producer, and his obvious pride in that rare showbiz jewel of a union shines brighter than anything else here. Except for the music. Oh yes, the music. We didn’t break into full out karaoke although tempted I was at points. This was our early tweendom’s soundtrack so B-B-Benny me back, baby.
Parts of the film feels utterly generic. We have seen these rock narratives before and know of their properties. What makes this one beat are dizzying music sequences with their own aesthetic ( and conveniently muddled timelines- songs are presented to fit the film, not the reality) and the guy who punches life into every one of them is Welsh actor Taron Egerton. Here he is showing off his pipes at a recent Aids Foundation auction.
The twenty-nine-year-old joins actor Jamie Bell, who is also a dancer (remember Billy Elliot?), and Richard Madden as a trio of stellar talent; reason enough to go. Madden is hot hot hot these days as rumours continue he is the clear favourite to follow Daniel Craig as James Bond. I loved him in the British Bodyguard series and GOT fans know him as Rob Stark.
If you’re like me, you might wonder at the sudden end of the film. No spoilers but there’s a chunk of life history smushed at the conclusion of the film into a few photos and information graphics; all equal in the redemptive narrative possibility to the wild tale preceding it. This is a musician who has raised $450 million for AIDs research, after all. It’s a minor quibble but this fan wanted to see more of that real life second chapter’s potency. And for all the whiners dissing jukebox musicals, there is this: music as we know it will never be like this again. It will continue to morph and produce wondrous sounds as it has, but we are now in a time of ephemeral shapeshifting: never has it been harder for artists to reach this kind of international success. The best moment in this film is one of gorgeous levitation. I won’t spoil it for you but it is this moment that captures the entire giddiness of hearing magic. I dare you not to smile. Or cry. Eventually, this kind of film will die out, and this well-trodden genre, but the music? It lingers on and we will all sing until we have lost our voices. Look for me this summer, roaring around town, belting out Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters in one never-ending loop.
🎵 And I thank the Lord there’s people out there like you. 🎵
And finding more excuses to wear floppy hats. Wore them then. Still wearing them now, without the spitting gap.
If you’re a mom, perhaps you will be fȇted. Perhaps you will salute all those who mothered you.
Perhaps you’ll cry. To get you started, watch the film Becoming Astrid.
Never before has a film come along with more appropriate spirit and shine for the week at hand. A stunning study of character and acting finesse, this gorgeous film comes via Danish filmmaker Pernille Fischer Christensen (who won the Silver Bear Jury Grand Prix award at the Berlin Film Festival for her very first feature film back in 2006). Christensen’s treatment of the Swedish literary icon Astrid Lindgren is my spring pick for your next couch flick.
A childhood without books—that would be no childhood. That would be like being shut out from the enchanted place where you can go and find the rarest kind of joy.
Astrid Lindgren, 1956
If you missed Pippi Longstocking in your childhood literary travels, it’s okay, you’ll survive….barely. Even if you did miss encountering the strongest girl in the world who lives by her own rules in a house with her monkey pal, Mr. Nilsson, Becoming Astrid is not a film about the back story of that beloved character. It is a film about origin: how a young creative woman in pre-war Sweden becomes an unwed mother and journalist and learns to live independently before her eventual marriage (which is not shown on film). What this film posits is that these early years informed Lindgren’s later work—34 chapter books and 41 picture books that together have sold 165 million books—and stoked the children’s rights activist she eventually became. The film opens and continues throughout with Astrid the old woman surrounded by fan mail from children. Lindgren is the fourth most translated children’s writer after Enid Blyton, Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.
Don’t you worry about me. I’ll always come out on top.
Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren
A stand-out performance by Alba August as a young and bored Astrid Ericcson is fine-tuned by Christensen’s direction. In scene after scene, this astonishing talent is given room to show a variety of emotions as she portrays the young writer outcast from her religious community. Not once does it feel manipulative. This writer shall just say as it is: a female director telling the story of an unconventional and exceptional woman is rare and that, dear readers, is worth a celebration worthy of Mother’s Day.
Yes, I cried. So will you. And smile too. Watch it with your mother.
Next Sunday’s Game of Thrones episode, known by those who made it as The Long Night, took 11 weeks to shoot, all at night and will be the longest episode in Game of Thrones history. According to Collider, it will also feature the longest continuous battle sequence ever put to film. I will need fortification to watch it, unlike last night, where I nursed my sadness over my favourite hockey team’s playoff loss, with a belly full of mini chocolate eggs.
Next week is Greek Easter where my inlaws and their relations will eat (delicious) lamb. Wine will be my main course if I am going to watch beloved characters fall to the White Walkers.
I loved this past Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones. It was epic without all the touted violence to come, epic because Brienne was knighted and her smile that followed was the best thing on the small screen this week even if you lined up all the hats in the Easter Parade movie I watch every year. There just isn’t that kind of moment on what is increasingly garden variety Netflix. Sorry binge watchers. That moment comes after deep investment by millions of fans and all those HBO creatives who make magic. Epic because Sam and his sword hand over, giving question to the fan theory that he will survive the battle at Winterfell and be the scribe who captures all of this story for future generations. Epic because little Arya finally got some (nookie). Epic because characters sitting around a fire musing about their death offers chances for scriptwriters to bring powerful poignant pauses to what has always been a horrifying violent series. Epic because it ended with Florence and The Machine’s Florence Welch singing over closing credits.
Who is your favourite character? How do you see the show ending?
The Regent Park Project is a dynamic web series, now set to debut its second season on YouTube next month. This is a must-see for those wanting an authentic glimpse into one of Toronto’s most diverse neighbourhoods, a place less storied than stamped with negative stereotypes. Until now. Have a peek at episode 1.
Sheena Robertson has worked in Toronto’s Regent Park for over 25 years. As a teacher, advocate, and artist-educator, Robertson saw a demand for projects that allowed the creative youth she engaged with daily to not only gain access to the professional film world but also to build strong relationships, and skills to share their own stories. To her, the stories were always there; they just needed a forum. Kick Start Arts, where Robertson is artistic director, jumped in with free acting classes where content began to take shape.
We used a story circle process where we used prompts to generate story ideas, and over time we told stories, and responded to them, pulling out the ones that felt important to us. Using forum theatre approaches, we improvised those stories, honing them, and eventually filmed them, and created scripts by scribing the improvisations. What developed were a series of fictionalized characters, and interactive stories, drawn from the lived experiences of our participants.”
Sheena Robertson, director
Never before have we been exposed to such a flowering of narrative, spinning out of every corner. Consumers are hardly starved for content, even if it is one look-alike series after another. Along comes this unique interactive story with an absolute mandate of authenticity.
Someone said to me that they think our series is ‘like the Degrassi Street series, but real’ – and I understand what they mean, and take that as a compliment. I think we’re super unique in that I don’t see anything out there where the youth participants are so engaged in all elements of the creation; from acting, to writing, to crewing. Our hope is these episodes give people an opportunity to look beyond the negative stereotypes of Regent Park, and see the amazing, smart, articulate, and talented young people I know so well.”
Season One follows an eight-episode arc exploring a community the cast and crew describe as one of “complexity, friendship, love, fear, laughter, and irony.” I encourage you to check it out. Season Two will begin with a launch party Wednesday April 17th in Toronto. See here for details.
Is there ever a time you can’t muster a high? When you scoff at such a list; mind blank and steeped in bleak forecasts?
Are you screaming YES?
This was a year maybe a high might be hard to find.
A year to confront aging. A unknown father rushes in moments before a school holiday concert and mouthes “sorry” to his annoyed wife. As he brushed past me (proud aunt in the front row) to take his seat down the row, I found myself breathless-he was so very very young, this tardy father. Suddenly I was seized with panic. I was that wife, when? Yesterday, wasn’t it? We were the parents with little ones in concerts we never missed. Now I’m…what? Old?
NEVER. Have you seen me do my ab exercises? MOVE ON, NOW.
I was silly and stern and strong this year. Sad and deliriously happy. Woeful and wonderstruck both. Age is my friend after all, even if nobody gave me Time for Christmas. Hint for Santa: I only want TIME and you can bring it without wrapping as our blue bin is full.
A funny thing happened on this adventure in adulthood: there’s always a high. We go high when they go low, says Michelle Obama.
What makes me high? (My lawyer has advised me to refrain from the truth when crossing the border). Here is the secret: stories.
Here are some stories on page, stage and screen that shone for me in 2018 and maybe a few from my own story. Read More
If someone gave you the opportunity to recreate your childhood home as an exact replica, then fill it with actors cast with likenesses much like your family, how would you move those actors through space? If you’re Alfonso Cuarón, you do it by keeping one thesis front and centre: focus on the women who shaped you. What this decorated director has been able to do with his latest project, Roma (due for Netflix streaming this week), is so masterful that it belongs in a category of rare achievement. Looking back on the many movies screened in 2018, I can’t say any film stayed with me as much as this one— it features the most epic scene of the year but no spoilers here. It sent me home from the theatre to peer deeply at our own culture, where women like the nanny, Cleo, dot households across North America. As portrayed beautifully in the film by Yalitza Aparicio (a real-life preschool teacher and novice actor), Cleo is the heart of a family in turmoil, providing constancy and continuity in a mad world.
Cuaron(speaking to those of us lucky to see this film on a big screen at TIFF earlier this past September), told us he spent many hours interviewing his childhood nanny as part of his research so that he would get it right. Along the way, as we move with his protagonist performing her many daily domestic duties; bestowing love on a family of four children, Cuaron paints stunning scenes of intricate detail and avoids nothing; political events are part of this tapestry while never overwhelming it. The camera sweeps and we receive in a slow build of absolute immersion.
What is most startling about Roma is what is missing: there are no recognizable stars, no overblown budgets, no heavy-handed arrows pointing us to facile conclusions, nor is this narrative laden with syrupy nostalgia-tinged speeches or soundtracks. Memory is a most excellent tour guide here as an observer of universal truths about social class. Indeed, Cleo’s role in the household, like millions of others, brings to mind an award-winning Atlantic essay from years ago, an essay that, at the time, reworked for me the very idea of feminism, and gave new urgency to my personal sense of identity. In her cover story, How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement, Caitlin Flanagan wrote:
The precise intersection of many women’s most passionate impulses—their profound, almost physical love for their children and their ardent wish to make something of themselves beyond their own doorstep—is the exact spot where nannies show up for work each day.
Cuarón’s work here may capture a year of his life back in the early ’70s but this is surely the year’s most relevant film, just as it is miles ahead artistically of anything else released this year. Roma will both awaken your spirit and break your heart as great works of art can do.
Note: This pristine gorgeous work is hardly usual fare for Netflix and I fear some of the deliberate pacing will lose swaths of viewers who can pause a film at their leisure. Yet how else to ensure the film be seen in the most democratic fashion? This month, Netflix confirmed that Roma will be released in more than 600 theatres internationally at the same time as the December 14th launch on Netflix. It is also winning awards: this week, the Toronto Film Critics Association voted Roma best movie of the year. It has also been named the best film of 2018 by critics’ groups in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Roma could make history as the first Netflix film to be up for best picture when the Oscar nominations are announced on 22 January.
He’s having a moment, Freddie Mercury is. Playing currently in theatres is a wonky bio-pic of Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody. For those of us leaning into nostalgia, the film serves as a glorious reminder of stadium anthems and communal moments that don’t exist anymore. Performance pieces make the film imminently watchable, but let’s be frank for Freddie, shall we? It was all about him.
Every year, I listen to filmmakers introduce their films, and dish their art at Q and A sessions, and am reminded: these artists are all infused with hope. The very act of making their film, from whatever corner of the planet they inhabit, is one of crazy mother f—–g courage. Remember what that looks like? Every year I am inspired, just in time, as every student should be at the start of September.
Here are a few of my takeaways from TIFF 2018:
Stay in touch with your college roommates
The most compelling on stage moments this year came from the cool intellect of writer/director Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk) who talked in detail about his relationship with language, the novelist James Baldwin, and his spectacular creative shorthand with his old roommate, cinematographer James Paxton, who has shot every short and feature Jenkins has made. The result: stunning filmic portraits.
“James and I went to film school together. I’ve known him since I was 20. We were actually roommates. We were those cats who talked shit about the other students who weren’t watching, we were the inner nerds, film school nerds kind of thing; we have this language. James is actually white but he’s become celebrated, because we’ve been working together for so long and most of the stories I tell feature black actors, he has developed an eye and sensitivity to the way—especially the history of emotion in black skin is a very complicated history— and he and I have worked over the years to go against the grain and present black skin and black faces on screen.”
I asked Jenkins what his life is like as a filmmaker after winning the Oscar for Moonlight.
“People return my phone calls now. They reply to my emails now. That’s the biggest thing. But I work with all my friends. My producers are people I went to film school with, my editors are from my film school, my cinematographer etc, so those people have seen me at the lowest level, and seen me being really ridiculous and will tell me You’re being a bit extra right now, you may have won the Oscar but you’re still the same dude. I feel like opportunities are much more readily available. However, I wrote this film in 2013 at the same time I wrote Moonlight so there was no pressure, it was already set in motion. I do whatever I can to get out of the headspace of somebody who has won the Oscar.”
Jenkins is at work on another literary adaptation. His next project is to write and direct a one hour drama series adapted from Colon Whitehead’s bestseller, The Underground Railroad, currently in development at Amazon.
When making a film means survival…
Edge of the Knifewas the first film to be told in Haida dialects, languages that less than twenty people on the planet still speak fluently. The film, set in Haida Gwai in the 1800’s, follows the classic story, shot with beautiful cinematography, of the Wildman (from Haida legend) who haunts the land. In making their film, co-directors Gwaii Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown achieved the colossal: preserving a culture. The world premiere for this film was easily the most moving of all the events at this festival as the cast and crew spoke passionately about their film collective, one vastly different from the usual hierarchal film sets. The most wonderful element of the film, for me, was the attention paid to the grandmothers, the nonnies who shone through the screen. An audience member wanted to know what it was like working on the set.
“I’ll speak briefly and pass it off to others because I don’t know what it’s like to be on any other film set. Working with my nonnies, I thought I was the boss but we all know who is really the boss in those situations.”
-Gwaii Edenshaw, co-director, Edge of the Knife
When titles fit…
“I’m always thinking about people hundreds of years from now; what will they say of us? They will say, I think, “These people were living at the time of the fall of the American empire.”
-Denys Arcand, director
When dumb questions are permitted…
Looking back at the film right now, is there any scene you would have done better, says one audience member at The Hummingbird Projectpremiere (as the rest of us mutter, geez)
“If you’re a sane actor, the answer would be all of it. I haven’t watched myself in a movie in ten years for that reason. I can’t look. I’m so mortified by it. The only analogy I can possibly give you with regards to judging myself is when you go on a vacation and you take, like, 100 photos and then you look at the photos and you think, I’ll send maybe two of them to people, as I hate the way my neck looks in the other 98. That’s the way I feel about movie acting. To answer your question, I wish I could do better always. “
-Jesse Eisenberg, star of The Hummingbird Project
When they won’t stop asking female performers about being mothers…and the actor in question handles it with grace.
Carey Mulligan is one of the standouts this year in actor Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife.
“I’m more tired now and have less time to indulge in lots of research. The bar has been set so much higher with what I do want to do because I don’t want to be away from my children so when the opportunity to work with someone like Paul and make a film like this and get a role that’s this rich, detailed, complex, and truthful that is now the barometer for everything I do now. I want it to be as as good an experience as this, with as good a director, as good a script.”
-Carey Mulligan, star of Wildlife
When there’s no pretty faces in your film…
The Swedish fantasy film, Border, written and directed by Ali Abbasi, features two unusual looking characters inspired, in part, by Nordic folklore.
“The film has different ambitions. At the core of it what I found important and subversive about the project was that every time you see people in movies they tend to be perfect. You see a CSI episode and the lab assistant is beautiful with perfectly symmetrical features. I’m not super beautiful and perfect and I know a lot of people that aren’t, in fact the majority of us, right? Every time you see a person who is fat or ugly or whatever they tend to be villains or some kind of comic relief. Here we have a chance to actually take characters and give them an arena where they can experience an emotional life, one that you can engage with. Hopefully, if we’ve done our job right, the movie, somewhere in its course, you, the viewer, will start to see the the beauty in them as well. That kind of experience, I would love for everyone else to have, to look at The Other and see how they feel and not just look back and observe them.”
-Ali Abbassi, writer/director, Border
When you’re 27 and “a miserable lawyer, and you have a script burning inside you but you’re living the life expected of you and you don’t want to take a risk and be estranged from family and community and be seen as implicity rejecting everything that was offered to you” …
One of my favourites at this year’s TIFF, Wild Rose was written by Glasgow-born Nicole Taylor, among the more inspiring female screenwriters heard from at this year’s festival. On stage at the world premiere of her latest creation, Taylor (former lawyer, now successful screenwriter) spoke passionately about what she hopes are universal themes.
“I feel so many people, almost everyone, has had a relationship with their home town where they feel they can’t be themselves there, they’re not allowed to be themselves, and of course you want to leave, but if you leave you take yourself with you. If you ever want to be an authentic, coherent person, especially if you ever want to sing a song, or write a screenplay, you’re going to have to find, no matter how far you get from your home town, you’re going to have to find some way of integrating who you are and where you came from to where you’re trying to get to. I suppose in the broadest, most self-indulgent sense, this film for me was making my piece with Glasgow.”
-Nicole Taylor, screenwriter, Wild Rose
When there really is a wizard behind the curtain…
One dazzling event was surely the premiere of Quincy, a documentary about the long career of the prolific musician Quincy Jones, mined from 2000 hours of archival footage and 800 hours verité footage. The film is pure inspiration. Jones, now 85, whip smart ever still, joined the directors, which include his daughter, on stage after the film screened. Asked if there were any surprises to discover from making this doc after growing up with her dad, co-director Rashida Jones:
“I think it was the consistency of this pattern that he pushed himself to the limit every day to the point of, sometimes a heath crisis, or a nervous breakdown or whatever it was, and then every single time managed to survive, reset, recalibrate and make a decision to live his life a different way. He’s done it over and over again. You’ve had a lot of lives, Dad.”
-Rashida Jones, co-director, Quincy
“Don’t stop until you get enough”*
When the food nazi is sleeping on the job…
There I was, waiting for the film to start in my seat, munching happily on my green apple, one of the delights discovered in a treats bag given to me by one of my cherished TIFF buds, who handed it over outside in the lineup as if it was the normal thing ever instead of the thing that likely saved you that day. (That and the scarf you bought in two seconds from downtown Winners when you realized the weather had changed while you were inside the theatre: just another typical day in Canada).
“You there, yes you, there’s no food or drink in the theatre!”
Mr. I’m in Charge admonished, pointing at me with everything but a spotlight, me there in my seat, with my mouth full of apple. Clearly, the chocolate chip cookies in said snack bag called for stealth.
Stealth was on holiday for a screening another day at the Princess of Wales theatre, which surely has not seen pyjama clad patrons in those velvet seats very often. In a crowded house, nobody cares what you wear but what you eat? Perhaps I should have guessed their backpacks had some treats as a trio plunked down beside me. As appetizers, a pickle jar passed between them for the first half, before an entreé of odorous sandwiches, followed by dessert of peanut butter from those tiny samples given at diners, licked one finger at time, all relished with a soundtrack running parallel to the one on the big screen in front of me. Cursing is free in your head.
Kindred spirits are everywhere if you’re looking in the right place:
When the lights are down, and we’re bombarded with sponsor messages ( HeyL’Oreal, yes I am worth it, but your models sure don’t look like me, or anyone else I know) , volunteers let the RUSH line in and there is a scramble to fill any empty seats. Done properly by a highly capable volunteer quad, the rest of the theatre doesn’t even notice. Done poorly, and the volunteer flashlights and whispering into the first minutes of the film becomes an annoyance. Still, I had to smile in recognition at one last minute elderly fan wearing rad sunglasses who arrived in the darkened theatre after all of us were seated. On her head, a Tilley hat, and no, she didn’t remove her sunglasses as she realized the one seat remaining was smack in the middle of the second row down in the front.
“Can you please get up so I can just climb over and get to that seat?,”
The ask was a bold one, as she pointed to the seat holders in front of her. Request granted. Over she hopped nimbly; up went her arms in triumph. Yes, we all cheered. It was that kind of day, that kind of audience. These are my peeps.
*Yes, you were paying attention. That is the line of Michael Jackson’s hit, produced by Quincy Jones. Turn up your volume.