Saturday, May 28, 2011

Against Her Will: Mellissa Fung's Under the Afghan Sky

Long before reading the details outlined in her book, Under the Afghan Sun (HarperCollins, 2011), I had always admired the reports of CBC-TV journalist, Mellissa Fung. Whether she was reporting on the harrowing events around the Robert Picton murders case, or examining the plight of some unfortunates in Toronto, Regina or Vancouver, Fung always seemed to bring compassion to her reporting. Many times, I wasn't sure whether she was just shy (odd for a TV reporter), or merely preferred to let the people she was presenting tell their own story. She offered up many perspectives while narrating the imagery, but she frequently filed full reports without doing a “stand-up” (literally standing in front of the camera talking to us) during her pieces. In other words, Fung didn't appear on camera. For me, this made Fung rather unique among TV journalists. This compassion is front and centre in Under the Afghan Sky. Sometimes it works; sometimes it is misplaced.

Since she seemed to prefer letting the people she was reporting on to have the spotlight, it must have been extremely difficult when, in October 2008 Mellissa Fung, became the story. In October, she was assigned by the CBC to do a five-week stint embedded with Canadian troops in Afghanistan. While visiting a refugee camp to interview people, whose lives had been disrupted or destroyed by the ongoing conflict, she was kidnapped by four men. Her natural instincts (and training – all reporters are given some sort of defensive training when they go into war zones) were to fight back. During the struggle, she got stabbed in the shoulder and hand (wounds that bled a lot, but were ultimately not too serious). After being forced to travel by vehicle, motorcycle and then foot, Fung found herself in a remote part of Afghanistan. During all this, Fung's instincts as a reporter began to kick in. She constantly questioned the men, especially Khalid (or that's what he called himself) because he seemed to understand English the best. Where were they going? When was she going to be released? Why were they doing this?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Trying To Have it Both Ways: Guillaume Canet’s Little White Lies (Les Petits Mouchoirs)

Guillaume Canet’s 2006 French thriller Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne), which was released in North America in 2008, was, hands down, the best suspense film I’d seen in years. Based on American Harlan Coben’s novel of the same name, it was a superb movie with an absolutely enticing story of a doctor (Francois Cluzet) who one day receives an e-mail from his wife, whom he thought had died eight years earlier. That’s only the beginning of a pulse pounding and highly complex tale that saw said doctor running for his life, suspected of murder and convinced that his beloved was still alive. Utterly logical – most thrillers falter in that regard – and perfectly plotted, it announced Canet, an actor who had only directed one feature before, Mon idole (My Idol, 2002), as a genuine talent to watch.

Understandably, I awaited Canet’s follow-up film with bated breath. After receiving its world premiere at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, Les petits mouchoirs (Little White Lies) has finally opened commercially. Alas, it’s a mostly disappointing and weak effort, albeit not without some virtues of its own. Little White Lies, which Canet wrote and directed, is being compared to The Big Chill. That's likely because its soundtrack, laid on with ‘60s American rock hits from the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Gladys Knight and The Isley Brothers, and its premise, as a group of friends deal with an accident that has befallen one of their circle, is similar to that American movie. But truth be told, it never truly reminded me of that film. Little White Lies feels like a typical contemporary French drama that,  towards its conclusion, echoes the banalities and dishonesty of so much Hollywood fare.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Dropping Out of Time: Marco Tullio Giordana's The Best of Youth

Back in 2003, I was in the midst of attending early press screenings for the Toronto International Film Festival for Boxoffice Magazine. Although the Festival officially begins in early September, the work starts for most film journalists in mid-August. Since Boxoffice is also a trade publication (like Variety), we often had to see a fair number of movies at each Festival (every year we kept inching towards seeing and reviewing close to 100 films). It took three of us to do it. (As it turns out, that trio now write for this website: Shlomo Schwartzberg, Susan Green and myself.) Since Susan is from Vermont, while Shlomo and I are from Toronto, we would plan in advance who was going to review what before Susan arrived. One of the films I was assigned that year was an Italian picture called The Best of Youth (La meglio gioventù). Little did I realize that the movie was over six hours long. Little did I realize that it would also become one of the most satisfying movie experiences I would have in over thirty years of reviewing films.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Facing Fear: Mélanie Watt’s Scaredy Squirrel

Here’s the story. Scaredy Squirrel never leaves his home in the nut tree. He prefers to live a lonely existence. He follows a redundant schedule, rather than encountering the germs, sharks or green Martians that may wait outside his tree. Scaredy is neurotic, but he’s also a loveable children’s character created by Montreal author and illustrator Mélanie Watt.  Scardey Squirrel was introduced in 2006 by Kids Can Press. The book has since sold more than 400,000 copies, has been published in 11 languages, and become a literary series that is now an animated TV program.

The Scaredy Squirrel series humorously mirrors many of the irrational (and sometimes rational) childhood fears. Each book begins with a warning label, asking kids to wash their hands with antibacterial soap, brush their teeth, or check under their beds for monsters prior to reading the book. It then follows the obsessive compulsive rodent as he confronts his fears and learns a little bit more about himself. While the series is recommended to pre-schoolers, parents may also find a bit of comedic relief in it, too. As May is mental health awareness month an issue that continues to be dangerously ignored the themes presented in Mélanie Watt’s books provide a lighter, humorous take on issues that so many of us struggle with.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Vive la difference: The Paris/Toronto Project (Opposites Do Attract)

It can't be dying, - it's too rouge, -. (Photo by Guntar Kravis)

Paris hasn’t been a dance capital since Marie Taglioni donned wings to dance La Sylphide more than 150 years ago, at the height of the Romantic era. Ballet in any event has always been the city’s strong suit, developed largely by the French court. Modern dance, a New World dance form, was invented by the barefoot American dancer Isadora Duncan who so hated the high-reaching artificiality of classical dance that she created a school of movement grounded in the earth and earthly concerns. Paris never really made that leap, not in ways significant enough to wrest back its reputation as a dance innovator. And so it came as a surprise when Toronto Dance Theatre (TDT), the city’s main exponent of the modern dance tradition as directed by Christopher House, announced that it had recently looked to Paris as the source of new creation for its own troupe of barefoot dancers, inviting French choreographers Alban Richard and Emmanuelle Vo-Dinh to Toronto to collaborate on the making of two new works. It felt like the dance equivalent of that old expression, bringing coal to Newcastle: what could Paris give what Toronto already had? Plenty, it has turned out.

What makes the Paris/Toronto Project such an artistic success is the very fact that the choreographers are from Paris, their foreignness giving them the advantage of being able to create here without the burden of knowing local dance traditions that might otherwise have compelled them to follow some kind of prescribed plan or pathway. As a result, each work on the program that opened last Thursday night, and continues through to Saturday at Winchester Street Theatre, represents a complete departure from anything TDT has done before, both in terms of movement vocabulary and ideas. It’s probably why the dancers, still the same solid troupe as before, look so different, in a heightened sense of the word, performing them – appearing bolder, more robust and fully present in the works at hand. This artistic experiment, sponsored on both sides of the Atlantic by government agencies representing both Canada and France, has definitely paid off. The choreographers surpass all expectations by creating works that are decidedly avant-garde while the dancers are newly inspired. They, for one, will now always have Paris as a fresh influence on their collective performing style: vive la difference.

Monday, May 23, 2011

General Interest/Generally Interesting: June 2011 issue of The Walrus magazine

If necessity is the mother of invention, then satisfaction is at least the love child of expectation. We feel the constant need to calibrate our expectations, evident in the popularity of e-commerce consumer reviews, ‘best-of’ polls and blogs such as the one you’re now reading. We want to know what we’re getting before we get it. It’s tricky to manage expectations with a magazine: does the publication in general align with our ideology? Does the issue itself interest us? Purpose also plays a role in expectation. The link between authorial intention and reader results is often murky, but can be elucidated if readers try to understand intention.

If I had to write the mandate of The Walrus magazine, it would be: to make readers question assumptions, reconsider prejudices and stretch perspectives. The magazine’s actual mandate is much more straightforward: “to be a national general interest magazine about Canada and its place in the world.” Here’s where I quibble over semantics. General interest seems to imply that any Canadian adult could pick up the magazine, read it and find it interesting. While the subject matter would interest a wide cross section of Canadians, it’s clearly written for an educated and engaged audience. Since most local newspapers are written at a junior-high reading level, The Walrus would likely not appeal to these same readers.

There’s no doubt that there are people who find The Walrus intensely readable. And unlike other periodicals of biblical proportions, one can easily read the entire magazine in one sitting. Without an Audi or DKNY ad on every second page, it’s a size you can actually put in your satchel and tote around. The articles are not current in the time-sensitive meaning of the word, but they’re definitely relevant. For a magazine presumably on the left of political centre, the contributors provide an objective, non-pejorative and eye-opening commentary.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Judgment Day: Some New TV Favourites Bite the Dust

A scene fron NBC's Outsourced
When you love television, the threat of a show’s cancellation comes with the territory. Whether it’s because of middling ratings, skittish sponsors, quirks of network schedules, or a main star with eyes on the big screen, you know that a beloved TV series isn’t going to run forever. Nor, to be perfectly honest, should you want it to. Creatively speaking, in my opinion, some of the most fruitful consequences of the cable TV revolution are shorter seasons and shorter runs of shows. Thirteen brilliant episodes of a series like Terriers are worth more than 218 episodes of Smallville (which, after 10 seasons, recently aired its final episode). This is not to say that I wasn’t and am not still quite a bit upset about the untimely end of Terriers this past winter, but I’ve become a lot more philosophical about the lifespan of TV shows. Ironically, what made the cancellation of Terriers somewhat less upsetting for me was how well-constructed the series was, from start to finish. The writers and stars seemed to know exactly what the show was, and who the characters were, right out of the gate. What is more frustrating are shows that get cancelled just as a series is beginning to figure out what it is: you can see how good it’s going to become, only to see that future cut short. Every television season comes with a few heartbreaking announcements, and (with the cancellations of Outsourced and Traffic Light) the 2010-2011 season was no exception.