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TIFF 2021: We’re back…I think.

By September 23, 2021 Film, Headlines

This year, TIFF was offering a choice.

A hybrid festival meant we could choose to be INSIDE A THEATRE!

Or
Stay home (again) for a digital package of screenings, some offered across Canada.

Throw in a few drive-ins; all looked hopeful. Dare we get excited?

Do we even remember being excited?

We chose, primarily, to see the festival back inside theatres. DUH! My couch at home, that damn couch, that couch and I are now estranged. We tried to work it out during the first 18 months of the pandemic but agreed to part amicably. TIFF brought us back together briefly. Closure eludes me.

So back to the theatres it was! Around here at Wit’s End, we are doubly vaccinated. Those who are not were barred entry to all screenings. Festival staff indicated several safety measures, including distanced seating inside theatres and washrooms. No food would be sold as mask removal to eat or drink during a screen would not be permitted.

Inside the first screening (our first time going back inside a theatre!) emotions were threatening to erupt, but I resisted tears. See pandemic mood. Been there, done that.

The Friendly Greek and I grasped hands, squeezed tightly. TIFF is our school since time immemorial. September new pencils. A new season. It’s all here in this space. Movies are for big screens and extensive sound systems.

Two vacancies between each seat meant I could stretch my achy knee and plunk a handbag down on a chair instead of stuffing it under a seat. Ticketed seat numbers told us we didn’t have to hurry between films to find a good seat. Vaccine checks without incident; nobody gave me cause for any Covid anxiety as masks were routine. Indeed, I have been in few places so carefully monitored.

Programmers again delivered. Again, I travelled around the globe from my seat, mainly seeing unknown films. Discovering new storytellers, many of them women. TIFF has worked hard to support female filmmakers in the past several years, and it shows. Again, I heard from a diverse crop of directors sharing their creative journeys with audiences. TIFF also works hard to involve audiences; I was again happy to take part in post-screening Q and A’s. Maybe I could forget a pandemic had happened at all.

Bliss was not mine all the time. I missed my peeps: the lineup chatter with film fans from all over the world. Missed turning to strangers-who-are-really-fellow film nerds, and asking, “Seen anything good yet? For years now, these encounters lend me insight. Instead, we were a sea of masks. Indeed, TIFF 2021 in person was (mostly) muted; polite tea time clapping instead of cheers and long-standing ovations. At times, I wanted to scream at my fellow in-person risk-takers: YOU DO REALIZE WE ARE LUCKY AS HELL RIGHT? TO HAVE CULTURE AT OUR DOORSTEP AGAIN? Directors over and over again gush about the warmth of Toronto audiences; we are considered one of the friendliest markets in the world. Not this year. Mostly, these 2021 filmgoers were subdued, although being in a theatre full of people still registered. There was still laughter and still gasps, just less volume.

Has the pandemic masked our elation?

Also missing was the welcome chaos from all the international industry creatives filling our Toronto bars, hotels, restaurants and the downtown core. Even buyers stayed home. Walking the streets between theatres has never been duller, however thrilled we were to be out of the house. My head hurt trying to think of all the lost jobs filled to accommodate the thousands who usually travel here for this annual event.

TIFF: A FIELD GUIDE

WHY TIFF?

The movies would then have to stand for themselves this year.

We did see a few of the TIFF films at home. With total respect to the hardworking TIFF staff, most of it, this virtual part, was meh. We can and have been watching films at home anytime all year round. Streaming has never been easier or more accessible. Making the festival experience at home anything like, well, a festival is a fool’s errand, even with unique TIFF socks and other hoopla this event lover can bring to our domestic den.

Is it worth trying? That’s an answer for the industry number crunchers. Cannes, Venice, Telluride: all these festivals went for in-person only, preserving the integrity of a film festival. Should TIFF do this? This writer knows only this: Immersive communal experiences sit precariously on the edge of doom. We need to fight to keep them.

My faves list follows but first a word on families:

Filmmakers return to themes; many of them involve families. Families with secrets. Families with dysfunction. This year, I saw many heartwrenching family stories. Most of them rang authentic, escaping the storyteller’s enemy: cliché. Not Belfast, this year’s People’s Choice award winner. In recalling his youth, Director Kenneth Branagh dumped a magnum of syrup over what is a profoundly dark chapter in Northern Ireland. From the beginning of this black and white fairy tale, Belfast was all gauzy sentiment. I groaned through parts of a script full of Irish blarney, even as I knew it would win the hearts of many filmgoers, weary of bleak headlines. I share that fatigue but need truth more. It wasn’t here, not in a story about a terrifying chapter for real Irish families. Belfast is Roma-lite. Still, I’m not immune to charm, even if Writ Large, and memory projects are often infused with this heady nostalgic glaze. Any film with Judi Dench is worth seeing. She joins a heavyweight cast, including a dimpled boy right out of Hollywood Casting 101.

My Faves:

The Power of the Dog

A fabulous slow burn of solid performances and stunning direction, The Power of the Dog is a revisionist western set on a Montana cattle ranch featuring 2021’s most menacing macho dude: Benedict Cumberbatch. To give away any of the taut storylines is a spoiler. Do not bother to guess what’s coming. The film unwinds one brilliant frame after another as Jane Campion’s craft deftly demonstrates what Branagh’s doesn’t: subtlety. The 67-year-old New Zealand director (the first woman to win the Palme D’or at Cannes back in 1993 for The Piano) remains at the top of my list as to how best to use the film medium: the colours, the pace, the edits, the use of sound and silence—all here in perfect cohesion. Like many of the TIFF gems, this one belongs on the big screen.

A Hero

From another master dramatist, Asghar Farhadi comes a film set in Shiraz, Iran, about a prisoner out on a two-day pass, who comes across a bag of gold coins he hopes to use to pay off the debt that landed him behind bars. The first scenes give us our cue: our protagonist climbing up a seemingly unending long series of stairs alongside scaffolding. What follows is a moral dilemma compelling enough, but it is Farhadi’s spectacular grasp of the family and community that had me in awe. There is tremendous grace, universal connection, and humanity in this artist’s work, which has been honoured with the industry’s highest awards over the years. I found much to love in this film. There are no real villains. It touches on honour: how one gains and loses in life’s many compromises. It manages to be urgent and complex, seemingly without effort. The family here is so well-sketched they made me cry.

Mothering Sunday

I badly wanted to interrupt French director Eva Husson to congratulate her as she ate breakfast across from me in a downtown hotel. Her film, Mothering Sunday, swept me away. I have thought of it often since seeing it early in the festival. For those who haven’t read the Graham Swift novel of the same name, Odessa Young plays a maid, Jane, who works for Colin Firth and Oliva Colman, or rather their characters, the quietly despairing Nivens, who lost their sons in the First World War. On her day off, on Mothering Sunday, Jane has a secret rendevous with her lover, Paul, son of the Nivens’ neighbours. Mothering Sunday traditionally was a day for domestic servants to take the day off to visit their families. What happens on that day, in this film, sets the course for Jane’s future life as a writer. This is a story about grief and the heavy toll it takes over time, yet it also highlights triumph and resilience. The film skirts back and forth through different times of Jane’s life as the class system around her begins to collapse, creating a new space of creativity out of servitude. I loved every moment, watching it all like a dream.

Dune

Going to the Cinesphere, as I’ve done for many years, was a kick. Ditto the chance to see a film in IMAX, a Canadian invention, and yes, I was happy to be a patriot on this occasion. Imagine the anticipation in the house from readers of the most famous science fiction book ever. If buzz was missing on the streets, it was indeed pouring out of pores in the seats here. Then hotshot Canadian director Denis Villeneuve popped out to introduce his film, pointing to the screen. “We dreamed together about making this movie,” he said, “we dreamed about THAT” (pointing to the big screen). “That is the future of cinema right there.” He followed that up with a fist bump and, “VIVE LE CINEMA!” Ok, now here we have it, folks. A true festival moment.

Villeneuve for PM. Where’s the ballot?

(Read his Variety Op-ed here)

Dune is chock a block with thrills of massive scope, sound, and sandworms. Giant ones. We saw Part 1, and the ending is a deliberate set-up for Part 2. Franchise films are usually a turn-off for me, yet there is always a grandeur to Villeneuve’s vision. Wild, weird, and visually commanding…here then is movie magic. His cast? Not as sound. I was sure I caught out Timothée Chamalet the Thespian instead of the young royal Paul Atreides at times: death for any actor. We need them in character for every single moment. Pacing, too, is off here and there. I might have shaved off some minutes, but that this guy is an auteur worth applauding is certain. Do not see Dune on a tiny screen. You’ll miss the symphony entirely.

Yuni

Kudos to Indonesian director Kamila Andini for winning the TIFF Platform prize competition for her coming of age film, Yuni. Traditional expectations and freedom are the themes explored capably here as our clever heroine evades multiple marriage proposals while trying to finish high school so she can go to college. I liked the film for avoiding Big Messaging, instead focusing on intimacy and poetry to highlight the tragedy of robbed youth. In a year where real headlines have provoked many fears about the fate of young girls and women under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, this film resonates as a powerful portrait of a serious contemporary crisis. Never once did it feel dishonest, and lead actor Arawinda Kirana is wonderful.

Unclenching The Fists

Regular readers will know that what remains for me, post-TIFF, are stand-out scenes rather than whole films. This film has one of them: a trio of siblings clinging to one another on a dance floor. I cannot get it out of my head. Yet another prize winner (the Cannes film festival Un Certain Regard award July 2021), yet another talented female filmmaker, Russian rising neorealism star Kira Kovalenko directs a heartbreaking story about yet another teenage girl trying to escape her current situation. Ada is damaged, thanks to a horrific incident involving a school siege, hostages, and carnage of children. All of that happens before the film begins but haunts the characters throughout. The location, an industrial town in the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, is central to the story, as a bleak backdrop for this family in crisis. This is an intense film to watch, but it’s on my list for going deep and raw: this is what oppression looks like. You can’t escape this one without caring deeply about all the characters.

I’m Your Man

Downton Abbey fans choked up when the creators killed off Dan Steven’s character way back when. Finally, they’ll get their fill (and then some) of the British actor, here playing a sexy cyborg created especially for a scientist charged with determining what rights these robots can and should have in society. The script comes from German director Maria Schrader and it offered finally, a film in our schedule with wit, romance, and surprise, including hearing Stevens speak German-who knew? Don’t believe me? Just watch the beginning of this trailer.

Spencer

Monarchists will want to skip this outing. Ditto curious Hello magazine readers looking for a juicy royal biopic. It’s not here. Rather, Chilean director Pablo Larraín chose to open his film with a message on screen: A fable about a real-life tragedy. A reimagining then, not factual but a fable…and we’re off, watching Kristen Stewart pull off the performance of her career. The film follows Diana over three days of the Christmas holidays at Sandringham as she teeters close to a breakdown. No one watching this will escape without feeling claustrophobic, and that’s purposeful. I mentioned earlier stand-out scenes I won’t forget, and there’s one in this film that made me weep. Diana driving with her boys in a car, singing, “All I need is a miracle“. It comes at you all at once, which is, of course, the filmmaker’s great skill. Larraín’s direction is as precise as a palace place setting.

Night Raiders

It’s always exciting to witness the debut of a major talent at TIFF. From Cree-Metis director Danis Goulet in her first feature film, a tense thriller set in a postwar future that follows a Cree mother who joins a resistance movement in order to save her daughter—children in the year 2043 are now the property of the State. I was on the edge of my seat through this, and found it in parts so very sad for the obvious connective plot points to real-life horrors on Canadian soil, as many of us learned this year especially. Also loved the serious star turns from the two leads: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers as Niska, the mom, and Brooklyn Letexier-Hart as her daughter. The film was shot in the Toronto area two years ago with a delayed release due to the pandemic.

Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11

He may have done so before, but it was the first time I’ve heard TIFF head Cameron Bailey warn audiences that what they were about to see may be triggering for some. We were at the Canadian premiere of a riveting emotional documentary on the morning of September 11th. Directed by David Belton and Bjorn Johnson, Memory Box features self-recorded eyewitness testimonies; all recorded mere months after the attacks on September 11th, 2001 in a small booth made out of plywood by artist Ruth Sergel. Twenty years later, the same witnesses gathered once again, in the same booth, to share insights and reveal what it means to have survived. I had thought I had heard all the stories but how could that be? These “testimonials” were profound and sobering enough that we could not watch our next film.

Sometimes a film is just that impactful.

Flawed but worthy:

The Forgiven

Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain star as a bored wealthy couple heading to a lavish party in the middle of the desert in Morocco. En route, their car accidentally hits a local Morrocan teenager. What ensues splits off into two storylines that don’t connect tonally, but these two actors are both terrific to watch here, as are all the party guests who are the kind you love to hate.

Are you Lonesome Tonight?

Another hit and run narrative, this time from Chinese director Wen Shipeo, here making his feature film debut. A repairman life’s bumps up against tragedy in this sultry thriller starring Taiwanese heartthrob Eddie Peng. When he meets the man’s widow, he is tormented and considers telling her. I spent most of this film incredulous that this sophisticated polished film was a debut.

All My Puny Sorrows

Beloved books adapted to films are often tricky as fans want faithful adherence, especially readers of Canadian author Miriam Toews. Her acclaimed 2014 bestseller deals with a family in serious crisis: the emotional core belongs to two sisters, damaged by their father’s suicide. I loved this book, as I do all of Toews’s work, and was hopeful Canadian director Michael McGowan’s adaptation would capture her brilliance. It does and it doesn’t: the essence and heart of this story is certainly there, brought to life by a solid cast of Alison Pill, Sarah Gadon, Mare Winningham and Amybeth McNulty. Pill is especially strong and her performance was one of the highlights of TIFF 2021. She brought the magic of Miriam Toews’s funnysad words back to me. (Gadon, on the other hand, was miscast to me, as fine an actor as she is). If the current zeitgeist is all about mental health, All My Puny Sorrows prefaced it years ago with the real thing: the book is fictional but many elements come from Toews’s own life. If you are not a reader, this film is a must. If you love to read, skip the movie and read the book instead. I’ll lend you my copy.

Dear Evan Hansen

The Tony award-winning musical phenomenon is now adapted for the screen. One of the first productions to shoot during the pandemic, this adaptation suffers from overt staginess. There is also zero nuance. And, well, there’s the star, Ben Platt: is he too old now to play a teen? Who cares?! This guy can sing! At the premiere here in Toronto, a pair of young fans a few feet away from me, sporting Dear Evan Hansen ballcaps, sang along with every word. It makes my list because of that music. I was singing along too. You are not alone is a simple and effective message to take away. We all need to hear it.

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TIFF 2020: Adapt or Die

By September 24, 2020 Film, Headlines

The fact that film festivals are continuing to happen; improving, adapting making it all happen; is very moving to me because in the press and in the popular culture what’s happening and becoming sadly common to see is that cinema is becoming marginalized, devalued, and categorized as some kind of comfort food. To celebrate its very existence then is all the more important and necessary. We can never remind people enough that this remarkable art form has always been and always will be much more than a diversion. Cinema at its best is a source of wonder and inspiration.

Martin Scorcese, opening introduction of 2020 TIFF Tribute Awards.

I’m with Scorcese: props are certainly due for the team who brought us TIFF 2020. Thankful we were for a slick digital package, but let’s call it too what it really was: a sustained binge. Signing up for TIFF, the pandemic version, meant letting go of the rush; the buzzy street chatter and pulse of a few thousand new creatives crowding the corners and cafes. Let go of new nerds to nosh with, in between jammed screenings. Let go of sunlight on the scurry from one theatre to another. Let go of the tiniest moment when the theatre darkens, the shuffling ends; we are under the spell together; a collective hush. Is there anything collective left anymore? When it’s over, we might be sniffling wet tears in agreement at a devastating plot turn; outraged at a trippy ending to an otherwise wild ride; or jumping to our feet: TIFF audiences are notorious for their warmth—if they like you, you’ll hear it. This is again not the case in Life. Let go of the cast and creative crew, barely containing their excitement, right there on the stage in front of you; listening to them unpack their process. Sharing in their wonder at this provocation, this thing of beauty, this thing their particular collaboration created. Let go of the break from the banality of ordinary —my couch, my damn couch, is it not sick of me yet?—and just embrace it, this new brave attempt at saving a spectacular Toronto event.

Some of this, you, who have been here before, know.
(Read Why TIFF?)

Adapt. And say yes to a date with global storytellers. I can do that. Come along with me for my favourite picks.

Top Picks

Nomadland

A date with Chloé Zhao is a welcome one.

I personally cannot think of a more deeply empathetic filmmaker than Chloé. She challenges me as a viewer by not allowing me any distance from her characters. Her work is so searingly honest that I can never objectify the lives that I am observing.

Colin Farrell, actor, introducing Ms. Zhao at the 2020 TIFF TRIBUTE AWARDS

I loved The Rider, an earlier work the 38-year-old Chinese-born filmmaker wrote and directed. Her latest, Nomadland, stars the familiar and fierce Frances McDormand as a mid-sixties widow negotiating entirely new terms of existence after her company town is swallowed up by the recession. Her new life living in a van as she takes to the road through the American West is really a hymn to self-sufficiency and solitude, even as it amplifies friendship, family and the holes they can and cannot fill. There are many reasons to cheer about this gem. Cheer I did, inside our car at a drive-in down at Toronto’s lakeshore, where honking was the (obnoxious) replacement for applause. Cheer for an unadorned middle-aged woman carrying a movie without the usual tropes. This, dear readers, is a rarity in the cinematic landscape, as uncreased faces threaten to erase any real concept of age on and offscreen. That Fern, our protagonist, is played by a two-time Oscar winner could have sunk the film with thespian weight…except that McDormand is too clever, too good at what she does. Her performance is layered, consistently interesting. Cheer for visual poetry without any treacle: sentiment is kept tightly in check. Cheer for a character with life behind her—for once, coming of age fireworks are for someone else. Instead, her growth feels authentic and quiet, yet no less heroic. Cheer for Zhao’s use of real nomads playing themselves with all the charm and whimsy only real life can provide: each of their narratives offering insight and further commentary about the failure of the American dream. Ignore all the noise about awards. Nomadland won the annual TIFF People’s choice award and is on track for many other accolades. Somehow it transcends all of that buzz and lands at something more profound. A global pandemic means everything familiar is gone. New rules, new roads. This movie was made for now. In a rare move, the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, TIFF, the New York film festival and a special edition of the Telluride fest, all on the same day. Cheer for solidarity in unprecedented times.

The Father

Before the pandemic, for a spell, I ran a support group in my basement for peers challenged with a system that failed to meet the needs of the elderly, our elderly. We were small but mighty; solace and support our only currency. Witnessing our parents’ diminishments alone was often unbearable. Grasping the reality is truly experiential: you don’t know it until you’re there. Then along comes a movie like The Father. I watched in disbelief, tears streaming, grateful that someone so capable was capturing this essential question with such accuracy: what do we do with the people we love when they lose their minds?

French playwright Florian Zeller picked up the Moliere award in 2014 for his play, Le Père, which played around the globe to great acclaim (including here in Toronto at the Coal Mine Theatre). It is now a film with two cinematic giants: Sir Anthony Hopkins, as a father struggling with dementia and Olivia Colman as his daughter entrusted with his care. Zeller adapted it himself (with help from co-writer Christopher Hampton) by using the set as a character in the film. That set, and how the filmmaker and crew tweaked it purposely daily, served to confuse his own cast and provided the necessary disorientation for viewers to understand the terrors of dementia. That it plays like a thriller is intentional: Zeller is after the very confusion of a diseased mind: he wants you to feel the way Anthony does as he tries to place himself in his space. Is this my flat? Is it my daughter’s flat? Is it a room in long term care? They all look the same. Or do they? Who are these people? Is this my son-in-law? Is this my daughter really?

Tone and pacing are, like the film’s two spectacular lead actors, in fine form. The film may be sombre but never tedious. Watching two of the industry’s finest actors giving their best work is a feast; this film includes one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the festival. Yet Hopkins himself says it may just have been the most fun he’s had on any set, even a tiny studio in northwest London.

Working with brilliant actors makes it easy. I don’t play tennis, I’m not a sporty person but I guess it’s like playing tennis when you’re working with Olivia. Really easy.

Sir Anthony Hopkins

Expert, hardly but I do have front row seat with my own mother who has struggled with dementia for too long. A kind social worker told me what my siblings and I are experiencing is “ambiguous loss“. The Father is a superb iteration. I saw myself up there, Mom too. Good cinema works as a mirror. Here in Canada, one in four of us will develop dementia in our senior years. We are aging yet our films and our culture deliberately lean into youth. Only within a festival would this film get heavyweight traction.

Quo Vadis, Aida?

Serbian actor Jasna Đuričić wins my vote for the best actor of TIFF 2020. Equal applause to her director, Jasmila Žbanić, as this was easily the most impactful film screened among many hard hitters this year. Hard to watch, necessary to watch: these are the films festivals should herald; distributors heed. Based on true events is often a worrying preface note when I see it scrawled across the screen in the opening credits of fictional films. Finding a way into complex historical chapters through personal stories is always tricky as what is often lost are subtle grace notes and fully drawn characters. As Aida, a UN translator, Đuričić is ferocious as she carries the film with urgency in every frame as her character tries to save her family amidst bureaucratic chaos during the 1995 Bosnian genocide. I believed in her, was there with her in all her glorious dimensions, flashing her credentials in fury at the horrors unfolding. Urgent and harrowing, the history lesson is served beautifully through this intimate study of a woman straddling two worlds in wartime. Like Nomadland, here again, is a rare glimpse of an older woman whose smarts and strength unfold without cliché, without cringe-worthy false notes. See it with the young adults in your life who are told over and over they need to be resilient. Without context, resilience becomes meaningless. Aida is a way in, as all great art can be.

Another Round

Here was a film I wanted to hate: a bunch of middle-aged white guys decide to experiment with booze under the guise of academic research. Except here is mesmerizing Mads Mikkelsen and his pal, director Thomas Vinterberg, reunited after their amazing Oscar-nominated film The Hunt. Here too a sizzling cast and energetic direction and, dammit, you just can’t help loving all it. Humour is so rare at TIFF, and when it travels in the lane of pathos, even better. The insane experiments, the idea that you recognize yourself in all of these loveable idiots, that you know already where it will go doesn’t matter a hoot. It is all wound up with a memorable scene, one of the festival’s rare uplifting and memorable best. This is a winner, for reasons beyond my own household, where we ourselves enjoyed a daily cocktail..or three in the early months of the pandemic. This is tricky ground to play on with few easy answers but in the prerecorded festival Q&A’s, Danish director Thomas Vinterbeg was clear where he found inspiration: his own country.

We Danish drink a lot. But still, we talk about health and about a reasonable well-behaved life so there’s a gap between our behaviour and our wishful thinking of our behaviour.

Thomas Vinterberg, director, Another Round

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Be the bloom

By April 4, 2020 Headlines, Life, Performance

Ways to resist panic:

For those non-essential workers now isolating at home:

Yes, we binge. We eat*. We read.

We create, but only if the instinct to do so calls. Ignore the rush demands of others. Age has taught me one lesson: to truly absorb change, most of us need time. Few of us have that time or take it. Now maybe you do.

Read Ignoring the Rush to Productivity

Do all of the above. Do nothing.

Or…

Help. Don’t know how? Start with your own circles. One of mine dropped some tulips off for me on my doorstop and it made my whole week. Here are a few places that need your help. Please consider them all:

Tonight, check out a virtual celebration of one of Ontario’s most vibrant community theatres. Wavestage is celebrating 25 years and those of us who love and support this talented troupe of performers will be toasting their success at a special gala. Okay, so we were meant to throw our wild applause with roses at the stage and hug these performers in person at the stage entrance. I’ve witnessed years of spectacular magic from Wavestage, some of which you, readers, have heard about here, and here.

Instead, we can tune in at 7 pm to watch over a dozen revival performances and give them giant virtual hugs.

Here is the live Youtube link

Artists are bleeding now in every sector across every artistic discipline. Instead of being overwhelmed, pick one a week to lend a hand. Take a cue from some of this country’s most celebrated performers pitching in to do their part. Along with Canadian Opera Company, Shaw Festival, Soulpepper, Young People’s Theatre, Canadian Stage and Luminato, the National Ballet of Canada shop is donating personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks while their wardrobe staff is sewing caps and masks from home for our front-line healthcare workers in hospitals to help keep them safe.

#TorontoTogether

Frantic parents need support too. Luckily, a Mary Poppin clone called Art Studio (Not Just) for Children is ready to rescue with online art classes and other spontaneous creative fun for the whole family beginning Monday, April 6th. And sweats get boring. They really do. Now more than ever we need romance, and some spring in our step.

Got kids who love playing detective? Consider signing up for a customized narrative experience with a week’s worth of short daily phone calls from The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries, presented by Outside the March Theatre Company. Designed for the whole family (kids under 12 can pair up with a parent for no charge) 100% of the funds collected will go directly to employ actors from the community who have recently lost income due to the CO-VID crisis. For more info, read here.

If you cannot help others, help yourself. Spend some time dreaming of your favourite places. Maybe this madness will result in all of us being experts at cherishing. Here’s one of my cherished spots in Algonquin Park, Ontario. Where are your favourites?

No virus can rob us of dreaming. Last time I checked, dreams come free of charge.

*Some of us bake. If you want some fun, join my Bakers in Dangerous Times group on Facebook. If you want recipes, or my info about my book, with love and sugar: recipes and rituals for the sweet life, get in touch.

You can contact me here.

We are all #InThisTogether.

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Lessons in readiness

By March 31, 2020 Headlines, Life

Something has shifted. The earth has struck back. Exacting breathlessness, it has asserted its demand to breathe. From animal to human the virus jumps, as if to demonstrate the indivisibility of life and death on a small planet. The technology perfected for the rich to globalize their advantages has also created the perfect mechanism for globalizing the panic that sends portfolios into a free fall. Do things differently at the other end of this scourge, some mystic voice murmurs, do them more equitably, more ecologically, with greater respect for the environment, or you will be smitten again. Next time the internet will collapse. The passage from real world to virtual world to no world will then be complete. It is not easy to resist such thoughts, and perhaps they should not be resisted, for that would be to learn nothing.

Roger Cohen, A Silent Spring (New York Times)

Day 19: What have I learned?

I can live in the now.

So, perhaps we have lost anticipation in this pandemic. Perhaps we have lost the everyday juice we drink to map out wants and desires? I’m ready, aren’t I?

Prior to any lockdowns, visiting my mother in longterm care in the past few months had given me some facility in grasping the moment at hand. There is nothing else there on offer. There is no tomorrow with dementia. There is only now. Mom and I share a peanut butter cup I scooped up at the volunteer-run tuck shop downstairs, and together watch an old black and white film. We agree there are few better combos than peanut butter and chocolate. I stroke her hair—still fine, now bone-straight grey— tucked back in a borrowed hairband instead of her signature blonde backcomb. She responds well to this touch, beams a silent thank-you to me. In the end, she doesn’t speak much. Smiles. Listens. Responds with one or two-word answers. Hugging is its own language; indeed my first language, my most fluent language even as I have learned over time to converse with those with lukewarm settings who do not share my mother tongue.
When the attendants come to manoeuver her walker to dinner, I help her to stand, and then wrap my arms around her. It is all. It has to be enough.

If there are no longer anticipatory twinges, I can cope. With Mom, there are no days of the week either. There is just now. I’m used to this. I am ready.

Except now I cannot hold her.

All human touch is now governed (by necessity) by pandemic rules. Like all of us, Mom and all her peers in long term care can no longer have visitors. The exhausted workers there have unimaginable limits on their time but have worked out a schedule where they will assist residents to come to the window. All we have is a ten-minute window to wave at Mom. Is this part of ambiguous loss? We have lost so much already.

Yes, I can walk with a friend. Our voices carry across the mandatory divides. Yes, I can organize neighbourhood driveway hangouts. We smile and offer solace— and try to discern if any neighbour needs help with anything—and while it is all a strange and new kind of togetherness, we find our usual jocularity. Yes, I can accept a series of invitations to see faces in boxes on my screen for work, for fitness, for family meetings. I started up a new Facebook group: Bakers in a Dangerous Time, and other new creative collaborations with neighbours and friends because Let’s Make Up a Story is my password and it’s better than the one we’re living with now.

I am grumpy about technology hugs even as I adapt as human beings have done since we stood up. Who says I want to become facile at Zoom? I am not ready.

Being inside my home for hours and hours doesn’t scare me.

Extroverts can’t work alone. Really? Reductive boxes are lazy. I’ve been working alone for years since I left the newsroom. It’s me, my coffee cup, and the draft on the page. This is what writers do, give or take the odd collaborative lifeline. Putting up with my angsty writing gaps is Lucy’s job.

Housekeeping does not daunt me either. Once I ran a household and grew some kids up and out. Now I am tucking bedsheet corners in, with my guy who, in a previous life, was surely a royal housekeeper, if sarongs were allowed as a uniform. Or a jester. We are rich in quips, if nothing else, and cookbooks I refused to throw out in House Purges 1 through 11. His setting is always set to Hug. High up there, alongside his laundry pile of neatly folded clothes, is a deep sense of reward in the work we’ve put into this, this life now threatened by an invisible enemy. This is the payoff. We get to stick this out together and he is learning (finally) what I do all day, just as I am listening to his frequent work calls now on our walks together. Somedays, we are short with one another, and long on many others. We are sad and then we laugh. We know how to do this. There is never a bad time to keep learning.

A year ago, it was how to bake a croissant. Will we ever leave the house again? Check back when Spring shows up. The real Spring. Canadians know the difference.

We are ready.

Our kids are away from us, one in another city, and the other, in another continent. All of our plans to be together are no longer possible in the near future, in the imminent future, in the…what is the future?

I miss my dad even as I know he would have suffered surely in this terrible chaos. I miss my lucid mom who would have laughed along with me at the two red cardinals dancing around my yard. I miss my father-in-law who never ran out of soap. Our days fold into one another and some days are this: Husband and Wife sitting on the couch and saying: we miss our people. Every day. Sadness is a new houseguest… and now this? Dreams now are wild and fanciful and I have lost sense of weekdays and weekends…they have just slipped into a March puddle. Stars on my calendar to mark spectacular achievements have been removed. My watch broke. The little latch fell off although it is still running. I looked at the thing and screamed: you motherfucker, that is a poor joke.

I’m not ready. We are not ready.

The playgrounds and dog parks have yellow tape around them. Every day, small deaths.

I’m not ready.

It’s easy to reject some mindsets: my stress is the only stress. I have it worse than you.

Instead, it’s an easy yes to any and all of the initiatives to form communities of compassion (my film nerd heart bleeds for artists); to applaud the heroic essential workers who are keeping us alive, keeping us fed, keeping us in our cocoons of civility. I marvel at the daily communication briefs delivered by government officials with a calm I can barely muster in my relative safety. In a previous chapter in a television newsroom, I learned how fast news cycles work. This Big Germ now is supersonic speed and yet, there they are, doing their jobs with persistent professionalism. Don’t listen to the news, say, well-meaning friends. Who needs it? I’ve given up on it. It’s all bad news. I don’t listen to it, I can find it all on Twitter, on SNL, on Colbert, by myself. Really? Journalism, like healthcare, has never been more crucial. Learn which ones to trust and never stop following their reasoned threads, even if it’s in smaller, tolerable doses.

While working as a producer in that newsroom, I was a longtime member of the company’s pay equity committee where we examined each sector of our operation and how responsibility and stress were measured. That experience has never left me and afforded me precious insight into systems I never see from the quiet of my writing perch. There, mostly invisible from all the clamor, I try to make sense of it all, occasionally pacing, always pondering.

Like you, Anxiety sits at our breakfast table. Will our daughters be okay? Will they get sick? Parenting adult children is another setting on the dial.

Can we pay our bills? The echo rings around the world.

All of us are floating in the unknown. Some of us are going to fall off the edge and others will get a hand up. There are millions and millions of stories and most of them are worse than yours. We are all someone.

That I know this means I’m ready.

That I love makes me unready.

You, dear readers, are more important than ever. I feel you somewhere out there. Drop me a line.

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And so it goes…

By January 13, 2020 Film, Headlines, Performance

It really is hard to imagine something you can’t see.

Greta Gerwig, writer/director, Little Women

68% male. 84% white. That’s how these Oscar 2020 nominations went down; that is the group who nominates and votes. That is how films like The Farewell are ignored.

Diversity will only happen when that body of membership changes.

To become an Academy member, artists need professional credits.

To build credits, they need to find work. To find work, they need someone to give them a chance and look past gender, skin colour (and boob size) and see human potential.

Change starts at the gate marked Enter Here.

Change is also only possible when critical bodies stop echoing bad choices from one another so unworthy, boring and utterly non-essential films cease receiving recognition, no matter how relentless a marketing campaign. Yes, I’m looking at you, The Irishman.

We see you and we hear you, Old White Guys of the Academy. We get it. You don’t want to be forgotten. We will always have your stories. They are burned forever in our collective consciousness. Your 2020 choices reflect your panic. But you still have the chance to do the right thing. Vote for Parasite.

The future is here. You can open the gate or you can just watch it being crashed by exciting new mediums and storytellers from every corner of the planet.




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No one gets to steal our joy. Not now. Not ever.

By June 18, 2019 Headlines, Life

Elusive as ever, joy was still ours to be had in Toronto yesterday. It took a sporting match to make that happen and one other key ingredient in that mass celebration on parade through the downtown core: accessibility. Over and over again, fans were to be heard gushing over “our team.” It was the story of our neighbourhood streets and that neighbourhood is global. Everyone owned a piece of the Raptor’s championship. We felt close to it, felt it was ours. Millions of fans had access to refracted glory.

I was a point guard in Scarborough growing up. All the children of immigrants- Vietnamese, Asians, Black, Brown, we all played religiously so it is really special to now be with my fellow Canadians and be celebrating together. Everyone in Canada knows each other. We are one big family.

Omer Aziz, author

I played basketball too —badly—for a brief inglorious spell in high school and don’t pretend any grasp of the sport’s mechanics. Nor did I watch it much until these championships lit up and I began to peer closely at this group of talented athletes. Such power! Such poise! And for this hockey fan, such spectacular restraint under the most intense stress. I was won over by the manner in how this Raptors winning team played the sport, rather than the sport itself. So yes, I too sped downtown last Thursday night and high-fived in the wee hours with my daughter (who played basketball for years) and my other half, a fan since the origin of the Raptors. That’s him in the grainy photo, playing in the streets of Kensington Market. They were both there yesterday here in Toronto, making their way through those happy throngs. We were all there in spirit. Communal moments are as rare as perfect sleeps in this digital era.

Our collective glory held the day until some thieves tried to steal it with a gunshot scattering through a sea of peaceful humans. For those injured, a horrific moment. For those in the stampede, a panic sure to cause future sleepless nights. But these criminals were apprehended by quick thinking cops. Most of the crowd were not affected; thousands and thousands of fans dancing down the streets still turned their faces to the sun.

Fleeting as it is, joy can not be stolen. It was ours. We would do well to mark it. Bring our joy globes out to marvel and remember. There will be shadows again, but that moment is now embedded in our collective history. Age affords us this wisdom or why else are all the old folks grinning their wrinkled smiles to themselves? Someday that will be me, remembering the boys with their cigars and champagne splashing out in a spray over all of us. For the briefest moment, turning us all into bubbles.

For more reading:

Refracted glory belongs to parents too at this time of year.

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Kingdom come

By April 22, 2019 Film, Headlines

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.

(Read: You’re never too old for egg hunts)

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?

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Paris is all mise en scène.

By April 16, 2019 Headlines, Life, Travel
mise en scène at one of the booths at this year’s Paris Art Fair

Drop yourself anywhere in Paris and your immediate view is a film set lit avec plaisir for even the weariest heart. Each step forward, backward, and around a fabled corner and still the same miraculous mise en scène. How can we not stop and embrace right there in the middle of the street? Are we not directed to by this very stage? How can we not revisit those leaner frames we inhabited once? We were here decades ago when I ignored parental protests and scampered about these very streets with my Sorbonne student-boyfriend and considered (with great sobriety) never returning home. Paris does that to you.

The pastry shops do that to you. The chocolatiers are no mere extras either but take their proud place centre stage. There are hundreds and hundreds of food artisans in Paris and patience will get you a taste test in the middle of a charming square while your travel companion (crazed wife) drags you from neighbourhood to neighbourhood for sinful samples.

Dining in this city is notorious for a few things: snippy service —I experienced nothing but gracious welcomes, beaucoup wine —who needs water?, and status as a UNESCO world intangible heritage. In 2010, the UN cultural organization singled out French gastronomy worthy of the same kind of protection as historically significant sites or natural wonders. Certainly, the foie gras ravioli I experienced at the historic Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie in Les Halles —’tasting’ is too boring…here we “experience” the food —was worthy of some kind of protection from overeager dining companions. As was the grilled duck and asparagus cooked for us another evening by our host; dear friends whose idea of hospitality was champagne and strawberries as evening starters to set the mood at sparkling; fluffy warm croissants with coffee and melon from their local market waiting for our sleepy morning kitchen entrances. I’m in, merci beaucoup and Ooh La La and that’s all the French I can remember until you pour me another glass.

Paris in spring means Paris and people. All of them wearing les baskets that are not the runners you are wearing right now to walk the dog.

Every kind of tourist is here along with us but the city holds these players with grace. We joined a few in a pastry class as we learned how to fold the dough encased in blocks of butter. Huge blocks of butter. Did I say yet that I love this city?

We mingled among them as we gazed at the Impressionist Masters and wondered how we could go back in time and warn these models in painters’ studios that someday, their bodies would be out of fashion; warn them that’s just one way the world has lost its way.

We walked by them splayed out on lawns with their wine glasses the night we came to see the Eiffel Tower do its hourly dazzle. Paris by night. Yup. It’s all true.

We joined them in the procession into Notre Dame, and formed a hushed collective as we stared up into the glorious soaring space. No one is tacky here: we are all immediately humbled, whatever our belief systems, for this iconic cathedral has always been a living monument, one revitalized by writer Victor Hugo.

The greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society; rather the offspring of a nation’s effort, than the inspired flash of a man in genius…

Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

That any of it would ever be gone wasn’t even a whisper. That I tried my hardest to ignore the rules about photography but failed when I saw this Joan of Arc statue…well I’m glad I did today as I look at those stunning images of flames and mourn along with the rest of the world as this spectacular mise en scène is blackened with smoke.

Paris, like my hometown, has other smudges. On our first day of many walkabouts —my calves are as tight as my beltlines— we were stopped and searched and not permitted to walk along her most glamorous avenue thanks to recent rioting by the “Yellow Vest” protestors: their outcry continues as it highlights problems France has wrestled with for many years. That their protests involve violence is sure to affect Parisians and tourists alike. Parisians are not tilted by any of it. Today at least, there is solidarity and support over a landmark known around the world.

We flew to Paris en route to London. Along the way, we met up with these two, who are currently students in all things Euro, and proceeded to explore that ancient city for days on end. Check back in this space for my Best of London when I’ve recovered.

PS: Je t’aime, Mark. Je t’aime, Kazumi. Je t’aime Connor (and of course, Buddy!) Forget the boulevards, the Arc, the museums and the Art Fair. Forget the tower. Forget the artisanal wonders. You guys are the best in the city.

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Oscar Countdown: Wolfgang, is it worthy?

By February 23, 2019 Headlines, Recipes

Wolfgang Puck is in charge of Oscar sweets this Sunday. I propose this one, a classic combination if there ever was one. This is for the chocolate orange fans. The rest of you can go play with the other kids in the playground. Read More

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Oscar countdown: the also-rans

By February 21, 2019 Film, Headlines, Performance

Lots of the audience watching awards shows want their winners to be films with a certain gravitas.  But is there really high art and low art? Or just good movies?

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