Review: Three Movies from TIFF 2017

TIFF had tons of movies. Here are brief thoughts on the three that stood out for us. 

Dee Rees’s Mudbound tells the story of intertwined lives of two American families in Mississippi in the ‘40s. On breaching with the past and setting out for a virgin future that is the American ideal self-portrait, Mudbound uncovers an inescapable palimpsest of social and political histories; the West may be expansive, but it is still on the same colored canvas. That race and racism, in its everyday and venial manifestations, haunt the first half of the film only to come out in the open in full violence in the second not only shows Rees’s narrative acumen, but is also a chilling parallel, in the wake of a Klan supported president and Charlottesville, to the current state of the U.S. following eight years of ostensible ‘hope and change.’ And on top of the underlying and, ultimately, the essential issue of racism that shape the tensions between the white McAllans and their black tenants, the Jacksons, Rees weaves together first-person perspectives on land and land ownership, fathers and sons, marriage, and traumas and friendships made by war. Though its tone and pace are quiet, the movie is ambitious. Perhaps its greatest success lies in its vivid and triumphant ending.

In Kazuya Shiraishi’s Birds Without Names, Towako (Yū Aoi) and Jinji (Sadao Abe), two protagonists described as ‘a rotten woman’ and ‘a slob’ respectively, live in a small apartment in Osaka and each indulge in their basest desires; Towako despises Jinji and finds him disgusting, but is entirely dependent on him as she pines after an ex-boyfriend who almost beat her to death; Jinji shamelessly submits to and lusts after Towako and sustains her unsustainable habits. Yet, the movie is less concerned with unrequited love than it is with the possibility and failures of empathy and romantic love. As the movie veers from melodrama to murder-mystery, Shiraishi explores the characters’ depravities as means of survival and cries for help. If so, ‘to whom?’ we may ask. When the movie nears its end, one is left to wonder if, having failed at Eros, the characters instead glimpsed at each other’s Psyche; shared something more enduring, if less beautiful, than desire. In classic Greek tragedies, catharsis comes from a sense of purgation and renewal; there’s none to be found in Birds Without Names — it leaves the audience feeling powerless, full of regret and questions about the possibilities and scarcity of redemption.

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, is a coming of age story in set California. Though certain plot lines make a synopsis of the movie not necessarily redundant, suffice it to say that Christine, or Lady Bird, played by a charming and convivially rebellious Saoirse Ronan, goes to a new high school, suffers anxieties about her family, friends, college, and romance, and survives. That is not to say that if you’ve seen other coming of age movies, you should skip Lady Bird. The movie treads familiar grounds with candid humor and brilliant performances from Ronan and Marion McPherson (who plays the mother) that it seems fresh. If nothing else, it’s well worth watching for a gloriously awkward audition scene early in the movie.

Lady Bird and Mudbound are set to release on November 10th and 17th respectively. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

A Conversation with Maestro Kerry Stratton of TO Concert Orchestra

Casa Loma

There’s little doubt that Mozart is not coming back as the hottest producer any time soon. Yet, for many, his name is not only familiar but also synonymous with grandeur, quality, and a kind of genius our culture continues to celebrate. That his is the music and style whose vestiges are still engrained in our culture is a testimony to its power and endurance. And that is even if not many listen to it — we will long deliver eulogies to Mozart and his music, and many like it.

But Maestro Kerry Stratton and the Toronto Concert Orchestra is trying to change that. They want to bring back out to the streets from their mausoleum classical music, symphonies, and the genre’s particular genius and ability to move and connect us.

Over the course of the summer, at the beautiful Casa Loma, Maestro Stratton and his orchestra delivered on their promises to make the genre relevant again. Downright rejecting the culture of exclusivity associated with orchestral music, Symphony in the Gardens attracted a motley audience of old and young, connoisseurs and those simply intrigued; during intermission, conversation flowed between parties and in line to get second glasses of wine.

I spoke with Maestro Stratton over the phone prior to meeting him in person. In both, he was candid and jovial about his love of and his misgivings about the way we appreciate music. His affection for his players and the music was contagious.

Maestro Kerry Stratton

Hoon: You’ve led orchestras in a number of different cities, Budapest, Prague, Seoul, among others. Can you speak to Toronto’s orchestra or classical music culture, and how it’s different from others and if it has a potential to grow here?

Kerry Sratton: Well, I would say that the first potential for growth for any orchestra anywhere in the world is the growth of its public. That’s one that comes to mind. But there is another kind of growth, the growth that comes because no matter what we do, we can improve upon it. That’s the kind that every orchestra, truly great ones, understand — they know that they must continue to hone their art. That’s what makes them as wonderful as they are. This is not an art form for the complacent.

H: How do you think the public can be engaged with Toronto’s orchestras and their growth? It’s not the most popular form of entertainment for the public at the moment.

KS: First of all, I absolutely adore your choice of words, “entertainment”. I have colleagues who regard that as, for some reason or another, well, say, a dirty word. And I don’t feel that way. I feel that if there’s anything that we must remember about the great composers is that they understood that they must entertain and they must entertain with considerable immediacy as well.
For some reason or another there are artists who disdain that. But it was certainly well known to Mozart. It was well known to Beethoven and many other composers who sought to…. Handel was told once by somebody departing a concert, “We were well entertained.” And Handel’s answer was “My lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wish to make them better.”
That’s what I think, if you asked me the question “what do I want for the public.” It’s not really that they should buy a ticket (though that’s a marvellous thing and we need them badly). It’s that they should leave better than they arrived. That’s what I think it should do. Yes, it should uplift us, no doubt about it. But it should also entertain and I do not regard that with any kind of disdain whatsoever.

H: Thank you for your candor.

KS: Well you know I’ll put it to you this way. If you want a motto from my orchestra it would be “you pay admission not tuition”

H: What would you say differentiates classical music in terms of the connection between performers and the audience?

KS: Well, that’s a very good question because it’s an enormous question, and the key aspect of it is that the connection is something you cannot manufacture. I think it is the strength of the performer’s personality, and will always be a matter of the strength of personality. I don’t think it will ever change. In one way, the public is infallible — they truly are. I forget who said it but, “Do not disdain popular culture”: to disdain popular culture is to make a huge mistake. Nobody can tell you who the speaker of the house was in 1935 but they can all tell you who Shirley Temple was. It is the humanity that makes the connection — the human to human connection is what makes going to one of our concerts far better than the best thing you can find. It’s not a human being with an electronic machine.

H: There are certainly stereotypes about classical music and going to concerts and listening to a symphony — that it’s expensive and you have to dress a certain way, be a certain kind of a person.

KS: I would put it to you this way: Who better to dress for than Mozart? But instead of worrying about that, I think the public should come looking for that humanity I mentioned in my previous answer. Some of the great symphonies, you need life experiences to appreciate, but that’s not something that should hold you back. There are things that you tell someone at different stages in their lives. Some are ready earlier, some are not ready until they’ve gone through certain stages. The lines are entirely clear. I think we are still hung up on the Hollywood version of classical music and its culture, which is all rubbish. Hollywood never gets it right. Ever.

H: Do you think there is a way to ‘modernize’ or otherwise make classical music more relevant to today’s audience?

KS: One of the things I find very tiresome these days is that there are all kinds of articles about ‘Look, Franz Liszt was the Mick Jagger of his time” or so and so is the someone of his time. No, they weren’t, I find that very tiresome. Franz Liszt was like no one else, Franz Liszt was like Franz Liszt, and he swept people away with the power of his play, his delivery, and his genius. So he doesn’t need to be compared to somebody modern. Franz Liszt will speak to you as Franz Liszt.

H: Is there something that a Toronto orchestra is doing to attract a more younger or diverse audiences than the standard ones?

KS: Well that seems to be the Holy Grail for orchestras everywhere not just Toronto. I would say if you want a younger group, then you better start getting a board of directors for the younger demographics and an orchestra that can engage in what you’re doing. And I have a young orchestra and they are very much engaged in what they do, and you cannot hide that from the public. It is as obvious as a fresh hair cut. These young excellent players fully engage in what they are doing. It is contagious! It is utterly contagious to the public and that’s what brings people back. We’re finishing out fourth summer at Casa Loma and I tell you, it has just been a revelation. There is no single demographic. We’ve got everybody, we’ve got people of all ages and ethnicities. Truly, I can say this and invite anybody to come and experience what I can say. If I’m saying this to a reporter who might check me out, you’d be damn sure I’m telling the truth. [I am and did, and found this to be true.]

H: Classical music is often associated with the past. How do you conceive of its future? Where is classical music going? Not just in Toronto but in general.

KS: ‘Classical music’ is a horrible misnomer. You take classical music and the first thing that comes to mind is ‘dead white guys.’ I’ve got some wonderful young composers that I have been featuring. They’re alive, they walk the earth, and to deny them an opportunity to be heard is to deny the chance of making the spirit of Beethoven dwell within them. And I am perfectly willing to hear these people. And it isn’t out of some sort of charity — you can forget that aspect. I am entirely convinced of what they are doing. If the conductor is convinced about the piece, then he can convince the players, and the players will convince the public. That’s what I’ve been trying to do. I found composers that I think are absolutely convincing. What I cannot abide is the pseudo-complexity of too much modern music. It is ridiculous how serious they can take themselves. My only question to that is, and this is not rhetorical, Who do you think you are? Please answer my question, I want to know.

H: I think people (myself for one) think of themselves simply as an audience member. It is more of a passive role for most people. It’s sometimes hard to see or remember that the audience is just as important in creating a culture.

KS: I’ll tell you something and you probably already know this so I’ll remind you. My choice of words is that I will remind you. When you’re on stage, I don’t care if it is to announce, to sing, to act, to read a poem you know if the audience is with you or not, and you feel it. It comes off like paint. You cannot not know if the they’re with you, and it’s the greatest feeling when they are and you should be covered in sweat if they’re not. I will put it to you this way, what we look for in a concert, in a performance, in an art- they are all the things that can’t be taught. And if a performer cannot truly experience from her experience, learn how to do it, then some other line of work should reckon as soon as possible.

H: If you had a particular favourite when you’re at Casa Loma, the people should look out for or if t changes all the time.

KS: Oh no, I’m afraid my love for music is quite promiscuous. There’s that wonderful line in that I forget which Broadway musical it was but the guy said, “when I’m out with the girl I love, I love the girl I’m with” — absolutely true. One night if I I’m with Beethoven then I love Beethoven but if it’s Mozart the next night, then Mozart is my true love, and on it will go. And that’s the only way it should be. You cannot be playing one composer and wishing you were playing somebody else, that’s the route to failure.

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Where Toronto Eats: Zakkushi

Art work by Michelle Cheung for Novella Magazine

Zakkushi in Cabbagetown is crowded and hectic. The staff moves quickly through the narrow hall, carrying giant pints of beer. The crowd, mostly parties of four or more, is another indication that this is no delicate, precious Japanese dining scene. You can see everyone and everyone can see you in the bright yellow lights: there’s no shame in eating and drinking in excess here. It’s just homey enough feel like your living room and all that space entails for your usual inhibitions. Come to have fun and the staff lets you know you’re right at home; bring a weird uncle who talks to strangers, make new friends.

Also, yakitori. Truth be told, after a few of those giant pints and $9 bottles of sake, I’m no longer sure whether the chicken hearts (hatsu) were served split or whole, or whether the cartilage (nankotsu) were served mixed in a bowl with scallions or just plain with sea salt, and various other details those in the kitchen, the center of gravity that holds everything together, toiled over. But a copious amount of chicken was eaten, and I trust myself to say that it must have been pretty good.

General rule of thumb: wherever they offer ‘teriyaki sauce or sea salt’, opt for the sea salt — in lieu of writing an entire thing against the easy deployment and reckless abundance of ‘teriyaki sauce,’ let me just say, don’t do it. Let’s not make the man/woman who butchered the chicken into multiple different parts and slowly grilled them over charcoal with loving care and occasional dunks in tare look back at the plate of wet kushi in anger.

The raw section of the menu is less than ideal, but considering the prices and the range of meats offered, it’s understandable. And, as mentioned above, it’s difficult to stay disappointed at anything here, what with new dishes to try and new dishes to envy over at the next table. True, some may say that other izakayas or those who want to be izakayas may have larger menus with cooler typography and photos and ostensibly daily specials and a staff with more expansive vocal cords. Okay, cool.

At Zakkushi, order more than think you can finish because the portions are often small, and eat your fill. It’s a bit of a walk to the subway station, so go over the menu again and order some more.

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True Americans, and Other News

‘The Water Garden’ (1909) by Childe Hassam (1859–1935 ), The Metropolitan Museum.

We Are All of Us of Our Time, and Other News


Bauhaus Building, Dessau — view from the vestibule window looking toward the workshop wing (1926) Lucia Moholy (1894-1989). Tate Modern.