According to Ai Weiwei

You have to admire a man that can create a piece of art out of an image of his brain hemorrhage. That’s the kind of man Ai Weiwei is.

If you haven’t seen his exhibit currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario − entitled Ai Weiwei: According to What? − you should. Even if you’re like me and not generally a fan of “modern art,” you will be taken by this exhibit.

Ai is a rogue. He used to work for the establishment in his home country of China, co-creating the famous “Birds nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympics. Then he turned around and boycotted the games. That’s put him in a difficult position at home, but he’s standing on his principles.


His is not a voice that’s easily silenced. Ai’s bicycle installation was the centerpiece of Toronto’s Nuit Blanche. He continues to give media interviews from his home captivity in Beijing. The AGO exhibit is doing brisk business. He will continue his crusade of making the truth known.

When the Chinese government refused to say how many children were killed in the deadly 2008 Sichuan earthquake, he did the tally himself. A wall with more than 5,000 names is one of the most moving parts of the exhibition.

One thing great artists have in common is they see things differently. Whether it’s a photo of his middle finger extended to the White House, or a bunch of bicycles connected in a circle, or tea leaves shaped into houses, his works make you stop and say: this guy is brilliant.

Check it out before it closes Oct. 27. I also highly recommend a short film showing near the entrance of the exhibit as it provides helpful context for the rest of the show.

Summer movie roundup

While I don’t make it out to the movies as often as I wish, I did see a few “summer blockbusters” in the last couple of months. Some I liked and some I didn’t like. Ironically, I liked the ones I didn’t think I’d like the most. Here we go:

Iron Man 3: Let’s face it, after the disappointing second outing, the franchise had nowhere to go but up – and it did. Was the movie over the top? Yes. Way over the top. The “twist” they came up with for the villain, the Mandarin, was genius. Sure they veered from the comic books, but it was for a good reason – the story. For a superhero that was created in the 60s, this film felt very current with its parallels to today’s “war on terror” and fear mongering by the media. 4.5/5

Star Trek: Into Darkness: This was the film I was most excited about this summer and it was a huge disappointment. Sure, the special effects were great, but the story was where this movie fell apart. Only Karl Urban really gets his character (McCoy) and his screen time was far too short. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to believe Kirk would violate the Prime Directive and try to hide it from Starfleet and Spock would rat him out. When Kirk breaks the rules, he lets his bosses know! And forcing Khan into this story was a waste of Star Trek‘s greatest villains. I hope they bring a new team of writers for the next one because these guys are obviously out of ideas. They come up with this new timeline to free themselves of “canon” and then they slap the handcuffs back on. Too bad. I liked Star Trek movies better when the effects were crap but the story was good. 2/5

Man of Steel: Superman comes back to the big screen (where he belongs) and triumphs. It’s a great cast, great story (albeit one we know well), and an overall great ride. This is a very emotional film. I was close to tears on a few occasions watching the challenges Clark endured growing up and contending with his super powers. The second-half got a little carried away with the action, but Michael Shannon was brilliant as Zod, and he had big shoes to fill given Terrence Stamp’s iconic performance in Superman II. Can’t wait for the sequel! 4/5

Michael Shannon had big shoes to fill portraying Zod, and he did so brilliantly. He will scare the pants off you.

The Wolverine: Again, this was a case of a franchise that had nowhere to go but up. The first was okay, but didn’t really take any chances. I was glad to see the sequel pushed the envelope in terms of character. Although I wasn’t a fan of the climax, it didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment. Bring on more X-Men and Wolvie films. 4/5

Pacific Rim: This was the biggest surprise of the summer for me. After seeing the trailer the movie didn’t appeal to me at all. But the positive reviews convinced me to go and I’m glad I did. Massive robots fighting the biggest and baddest monsters I’ve ever seen. This was a great action film WITH characters that you really come to care about. You can’t ask for more from a summer blockbuster. Tons of fun. 4/5

“Race” tackled in true Mamet style

For David Mamet fans, Race may not be your favourite play of his, but it’s decidedly Mamet and therefore worth seeing.

I saw the Canadian Stage Company’s production in Toronto recently and, contrary to one reviewer, who called it 90 minutes of misogyny for $99, that’s absolutely ridiculous and irresponsible criticism. I didn’t find the play misogynistic nor did I pay $99 to see it. (We got tickets through Facebook for $25 plus tax – a damn good deal.)

Race is a play that has divided critics. That seems to be the effect its author has on audiences these days. I confess to loving David Mamet, his plays at least. I would put Glengarry Glen Ross on top, followed closely by Oleanna. But I can’t say I’ve seen any of his work that I didn’t enjoy in some way. He has a knack for talking about big issues in the simplest places. In Glengarry the setting is a sales office. In Oleanna a professor’s office. In Race, we’re in a law office.

The story: what is a white man to do after being accused of raping a black woman? He tries to hire a law firm run by a black man and a white man. The discussion flows from there about how to get him “off,” with unspeakable words flying across the stage to the very end. The script shocks us only because we know this is how people can really talk behind closed doors.

I thought all the actors were solid. Many have put down the performance of its star, Canadian Jason Priestly of Beverly Hills 90210 fame, but I thought he was extremely comfortable in the role and played it well. Perhaps the text itself affords his co-stars more memorable moments, but I think he held his own against a very strong cast.

Be warned that there is little to like in any of these characters. You may find yourself rooting for each of them at different points in the play. That’s a running theme in many Mamet texts. But we identify with them because we either know people like them or know that people like them exist. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but one that reminds you of the power of the theatre.

It’s a short but intense 90 minute production, but one that will have you thinking about race, as well as gender, age, justice, revenge, and other themes, long after the house lights come on.

And I thought the set design was great, too. Take that Toronto Star!

Starting in 2015, every summer will be like the summer of ’77

The latest news from the Disney/Star Wars front that has the Internet buzzing is that fans can expect, starting in 2015 with Star Wars: Episode VII, a new Star Wars film EVERY year.

My first instinct was to write about what a bad idea this is. But for once in my life I’m going to go with my gut instinct.

Looking at the Dark Side of this news, some have expressed fears of giving fans too much of what they want. A few months ago, there was no reason to believe there would be another installment of Star Wars in theatres EVER. The saga ended with Episode III, we were told. All we would get were more comics, books, and maybe television shows. Now we’re at the opposite side of the spectrum, which is Star Wars every summer.

There are people already complaining that the franchise will be diluted and lose is special status. That audiences get to the point they’re sick of Star Wars. That fans could develop something similar to Star Trek fatigue. I admit these concerns entered my mind too. But it’s all fear. And fear leads to the Dark Side.

If you’re Disney you thought this all through. You don’t pay $4 billion to George Lucas so you can make another Star Wars trilogy and that’s it. They’ll milk it for all it’s worth. And Star Wars is bigger than a movie or a trilogy or a few trilogies – it’s known as the Star Wars Universe, after all.

And here’s why I’m excited. Even a bad Star Wars movie is pretty good. It’s a place we all fell in love with from Episode IV, and one we all long to return to every summer. In the right creative hands, Star Wars fans will receive years of filmed entertainment featuring their favourite popular - and obscure – characters from a galaxy far, far way. I’ll take a Boba Fett movie, or Yoda movie, or even a Nien Nunb movie any day over a lot of the other summer offerings Hollywood has to offer.

A Star Wars movie every summer is a dream come true. Let’s stop complianing and enjoy the ride.

May the force be with J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams has been named the director of the next chapter in the Star Wars film series and I think fans should rejoice. I don’t “love” all his films, but here is why I think he’s an awesome choice.

With respect to Star Trek, J.J. admits to being a bit of an outsider. He never watched it on television nor did he watch the movies. He simply wasn’t a fan of Star Trek. He entered Star Trek at a time the franchise was on the wane. The last film bombed at the box office. The latest TV series was cancelled after only four seasons. Even the core fan base was losing interest. Not good.

Enter J.J., someone who never liked Star Trek who made a Star Trek movie that he wanted to see. He pumped up the action, gave the characters reason to conflict among themselves, took out all the philisophical talk, and amped up the special effects. He made a Star Trek movie for the masses and made it cool to like Star Trek. From a money perspective, it was the most successful Star Trek film to date.

Star Wars is in a different state. J.J. has always loved Star Wars and he was hesistant to take the job because of the great fondness he has for that universe. J.J. understands the responsibility he’s taking on here and it’s a big one. Although the prequels didn’t do much to enhance the perception of the Star Wars franchise – and many would say it was diminished – I wouldn’t say Star Wars is in decline. If you look at the box office results for the prequels, it’s clear people want another great Star Wars trilogy and are rooting for J.J. to succeed.

I think he will succeed because he knows he doesn’t have to do anything radical like he did with Star Trek. Star Wars is not broken, it just needs a slight refresh (with the help of Mark, Carrie and Harrison returning). He knows what parts he can mess with and what parts are also sacred.

While it was his “disrespect” for Star Trek that made that movie a hit, its his “respect” for Star Wars that should guide him to success.

J.J. feels the force.

A tale of two Lincolns

Daniels Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is the talk of moviedom right now. His Oscar chances are high and rightly so.

He has the fragile look, soothing voice, gentle mannerisms and true heart that make us believe he is Lincoln. We have no audio or video of the actual Lincoln, but if you watch how Day-Lewis handles his soft step down a hallway, you’ll swear its the iconic 16th U.S. president, or at least everything you dreamed he would be.

The movie itself is a marvelous account of the ending of slavery in the U.S. driven by Day-Lewis’s natural characterization of Lincoln. We all have an image of what Lincoln was. We know it when we see it. And it’s Day-Lewis.

While I couldn’t help but wonder about the historical accuracy of certain scenes/events, realizing this is a movie and not a documentary, I wouldn’t let a little embellishment on the director’s part detract from the film’s entertainment value. Who would have thought a House vote could elicit such drama (and a little too much melodrama)? Bravo!

Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln.”

But I couldn’t help but think back to another actor’s interpretation of President Lincoln some 50 years ago. In the much-loved Star Trek episode, “The Savage Curtain,” an alien representation of Lincoln is played wonderfully by the late Lee Bergere, who had hundreds of acting credits to his name.

Bergere died in 2007, but his portrayl of Lincoln lives on and remains one of his moste memorable roles.

Lee Bergere as Lincoln in the Star Trek episode, “The Savage Curtain.”

When the Enterprise, travelling through deep space, welcomes aboard a man who looks like and presents himself as Abraham Lincoln, Kirk is overwhelmed. Face-to-face with his childhood hero, even though he knows it cannot possibly be the Abraham Lincoln, he extends full presidendial honours. It turns out that this “Lincoln” was created by a race called the Excalbians in an experiment about good and evil. Indeed, Lincoln was based on Kirk’s own personal and idealized image of the president.

The audience empathizes with Kirk because Bergere paints the picture of Lincoln we all imagined. He is dignified and well-spoken, but also willing to pick up a spear and fight for his own life and the lives of his comrades. Again, we know Lincoln when we see him, and I think Bergere captures the beauty of the man we all know, or think we know, as Lincoln.

Bergere was the first “Lincoln” I ever saw physically realized on film, and as excellent as Day-Lewis was in the role, there’s always something about the first.

TRIVIA: In researching past roles Bergere played, I was stunned to discover he was the man in the WPIG mascot suit on one of WKRP’s best episodes!

Where else would you see a pig and a carp duke it out but on “WKRP in Cincinnati.” That’s Lee Bergere in the pig suit.


Happy New Year and The Hobbit

We at would like to wish all our readers a very Happy New Year! You don’t know how much your support means to us and we hope to repay you with more frequent posts in 2013.

So let’s get right down to it.

The Hobbit. Part 1 of 3. It’s long. But it’s damn good.

(I will preface this post by saying I saw the film in regular 2D and decided to forego watching it in 48 frames per second, which suited me just fine. I don’t think I could have enjoyed the film any more than I did.)

As a fan of the Lord of the Rings films, I am pleased to say that The Hobbit is more of the same. Is that a bad thing or a criticism? Not for me. Because it’s a continuation of the rich and complex characters, fantastic settings, and frame-turner of a story began with Lord of the Rings.

Fortunately, director Peter Jackson is the one that brings us back to this amazing world Tolkien created, to complete the story started with Fellowship of the Ring. I rewatched that film soon after returning from The Hobbit and found prequel references so much easier to pick out.

The Hobbit has the same look and feel and vibe as Lord of the Rings, and when all is said and done, it will be a great six-film set for my video collection down the road.

The humour is turned up a notch, but that’s a direct influence of the book. It works through. Is the 2 hour 50 minute running time extreme? Perhaps. But it’s a thrill to watch so I won’t complain about the length and leave that to real critics. For me, the combination of humour and adventure makes it a fun ride and I will be back for more and sorry when it’s all over.

“Designing 007″ not fun for the whole family

Designing 007, the travelling exhibit currently showing in Toronto, is a solid way to spend an hour for Bond fans. Just be careful if you’re bringing your baby along.

Showing at TIFF’s posh Bell Lightbox facility, you can expect to be immersed in the costumes, gadgets, sounds, and artifacts Bond. It’s a great tribute to 007 – who turned 50 this year - and his highs (and lows) through the ages. While a few of the most impressive displays are recreations, which is disappointing, there’s plenty of authentic Bond pieces to keep you busy.

Babies aren’t exactly welcome at “Designing 007.”

That said, I wish the organizers were a bit more sensitive to the needs of young families. We made the “mistake” of bringing a stroller with us. This is what couples with an infant do. At the gate, we were informed that strollers are not permitted in the exhibit. It’s not a TIFF rule, but a directive of the creators of the exhibition, we were told. (The creators must be a sensitive bunch because an even stranger rule is that you cannot carry your coat inside – you must wear it or check it!)

My wife and I were not pleased. There were no issues bringing a stroller into the recent Grace Kelly show (which was also at TIFF). So I had to check the stroller (at no charge I should add) at the coat check and walk the baby around while she slept in the bucket seat. At one point I was even asked if I had gained permission to bring the seat inside! Needless to say, I felt singled out and needlessly harrassed, but tried to laugh it off until I found the time to write this blog entry.

There would have been plenty of room to navigate a stroller through the show. It’s a ridiculous rule and, with the Christmas holidays approaching and more young families bound to come, I hope it’s revisted to save other parents the disappointment and muscle strain. While the ushers at TIFF were regretful and sympathetic, I wish someone higher up questioned the organizers beforehand and convinced them to soften their extreme entry regulations.

At one point, a woman who saw me handling (or fumbling) with the bucket seat said to me, “This must be the youngest Bond fan in here!” “Yes,” I chuckled, “my little Bond girl.” I couldn’t help but think if the baby was a paying customer, perhaps she would have been shown more respect.

“Skyfall” a must-see in IMAX

Skyfall is the first James Bond film to be released in IMAX – the most spectacular movie format ever invented - and it’s about time.

Simply put, this is great Bond, start to finish.

Daniel Craig gives his best performance yet as 007. He shows all the traditional sides of the character - action hero, lover, master of sarcasm. But he also shows an emotional side. We learn more about who Bond is and where he comes from. Unlike previous Bonds, the audience can understand him on a personal level. It’s a refreshing change.

What I love most about Skyfall is that it takes the franchise in a new direction while paying tribute to its past. This Bond feels fresh and new despite several references to the past. The film doesn’t attempt to hide Bond’s 50 years of history. It draws strength from them. For anyone that’s seen even a few of the Bond films, it’s a nostalgic ride. But it doesn’t depend on nostalgia to keep the audience interested. It’s more like the cherry on top of an already fine film adventure. I can’t wait for the next one.

I mentioned IMAX off the top and there’s a reason for that. This film does what few IMAX Hollywood film releases have done in the past (unless they have footage filmed with IMAX cameras. It takes advantage of the full IMAX aspect ratio. Traditional IMAX screens have a square shape while conventional screens are rectangular. What happens when you put a Hollywood film on an IMAX screen? Most directors tend to “letterbox” IMAX films, which means there are large gaps of black space on the top and bottom of the screen. It still looks great, but much of the glorious IMAX screen seems wasted.

Sam Mendes, Skyfall‘s director, did a smart thing. He made the IMAX version fit the IMAX screen, and it was a wise choice. This is the way an IMAX film is meant to be presented. Other directors should watch it and see for themselves how good an IMAX film can and should look.Every scene looks awesome and immersive. You couldn’t ask for a finer debut of the Bond franchise in the IMAX format.

Let’s hope this is the start of a beautiful friendship.


All-star Mexico at AGO

An all-star artistic Mexican couple is being featured at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

No, not Dora and Diego. It’s the legendary Frida and Diego.

While my three-year-old son was jumping up and down with excitment at the thought of coming face-to-face with Dora and Diego, and kept muttering something about Diego’s “rescue pack,” he wasn’t too disappointed that the famous cartoon cousins weren’t there. He particularly enjoyed the paintings with monkeys and fruit.

The exhibit is that good.

It’s more than an exhibit actually. It’s a love story, complete with the highs and lows of their volatile relationship (which I won’t give away here). Seeing their works, side-by-side, is a real treat. Through their art we can see how different they were, yet why they were “drawn” to each other – through passion, politics and love for each other and their country.

One of Frida’s self-portraits on display t the AGO.

A quote from Frida at the exhibition particularly struck me: “I paint flowers so they won’t die.” This statement says a lot about the artistic impulse in all of us. What drives us to create? To take a photo, put pen to paper or brush to canvas. Sometimes it’s to express a feeling, but other times it’s to maintain a feeling, preserve an amazing moment in time, or make something beautiful live forever. Not only will Frida’s flowers live on, but so will her image – and torment – as displayed in her many self-portraits.

The exhibit covers a lot of ground and a wide cross-section of artistic styles. You will see beautiful landscapes and stilllifes, horrific images in hospital beds, and other paintings you’d swear could be Picasso. If I wasn’t with my three-year-old, I would have stuck around a bit longer.

Frida and Diego lived an extraorindary life. I’m not sure it’s possible to fully comprehend it’s complexity in an hour visit at an art gallery, but it’s a worthy effort by the AGO.


An image you won’t see at the AGO, and probably never will.