WE: You seem to have an awesome time doing your podcast.
By Andrea Warner
An affable but empty comedy, Sunshine Cleaning stars Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, both of whom are seemingly straining for indie cred after their respective big-budget smash hits, Enchanted and The Devil Wears Prada. The duo portray the screwed-up Lorkowski sisters, Rose and Norah, who start an independent crime-scene cleanup business in order to pay for Rose’s son’s private-school tuition.
It’s quickly established — mostly through heavy-handed dialogue and a slow-motion montage — that Rose (Adams) is the older, “responsible” sibling, a single mom who works as a cleaning lady and longs to get her real-estate license. Norah (Blunt), meanwhile, is the unemployable, heavily eye-lined younger sister who still lives at home with their dad, Joe (Alan Arkin), a big dreamer who invariably fails to deliver on his promises.
Adams is thoroughly winning, and nails perfectly the sad-but-still-hopeful traits of a former cheerleader/prom queen who’s resorted to an affair with her married high-school boyfriend, Mac (Steve Zhan). Blunt, who is British, struggles with her American accent periodically, but brings a lovely depth to Norah, who still mourns her mother’s death, and flirts with her unexpected feelings for new female friend Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub).
Writer Meghan Holley seems to subscribe firmly to the ‘tell, don’t show’ school of screenwriting, but the actors rise well above the source material despite being forced to bluntly verbalize their relationships or feelings. Sunshine Cleaning is all over the map, desperately wanting to be a heartfelt, quirky comedy in the vein of indie smash Little Miss Sunshine (from the same producers) but coming off as a lacklustre imitation. Unfortunately, the only real similarities they share are confusingly parallel titles, a reliably charming performance by Arkin, and clunky endings.
Tony Dekker, the whisper-thin singer-songwriter who has been the beating heart and tremulous soul of Great Lake Swimmers for seven years, has plenty of reason to feel celebratory nowadays. The Torontonian has seen his Swimmers swell from solo endeavour to full-fledged band, during which time he has shared the stage with some of Canada’s finest indie musicians, including Final Fantasy and Feist. And now, the Swimmers are about to embark on their first major headlining tour of North America and Europe. Plenty of the Canadian dates have been sold out for weeks, and fans are eagerly anticipating the band’s fourth album, Lost Channels, which comes out next Tuesday (March 31).
Recorded in the heady and historic Thousand Islands region that nestles the borders of Ontario and New York, Lost Channels doesn’t depart greatly from the atmospheric folk-pop gems Dekker is famed for crafting. When it does venture left, it’s to lightly embrace the roots and blues of Dekker’s countrified influences, as evidenced on the twangy guitars of “She Comes to Me in Dreams” or the gently confessional first single, “Pulling on a Line.”
WE spoke with Dekker over the phone, a few days before he hit the road.
You’re headlining your first major tour. Do you feel you’ve achieved a milestone?
Dekker: Sort of. It’s been a slow and steady build for us. It doesn’t really feel over the top or anything. (laughs)
You don’t have to put on dog-and-pony shows in the back room yet.
Exactly. We don’t have fire cannons. Yet.
Do you have a special relationship with Vancouver fans?
Well, definitely the connection to Nettwerk Records, our label. We’ve always been fortunate to play really nice shows in Vancouver, usually at Richard’s. I’ve never played St. James Hall before, but I’ve played in Gastown as well, and back when the Sugar Refinery was open — that was a really great spot.
You have a reputation for recording in unusual locations an abandoned grain silo, for instance. How were you drawn to the Thousand Islands region?
A local historian and photographer got in touch with us after hearing us on Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Café radio show. He was really taken by the music, and sort of invited us to come to the region, and when the time came to record the new album, I gave him a call and brainstormed some great spots. It was just a chance meeting, but it turned into a really great connection with the region overall, and for recording and writing.
Was there a particular venue that stood out for you?
Being able to record in the Singer Castle was amazing. It’s just a full-blown turn-of-the-century castle that takes up almost an entire island, and we had to hire a boat captain to get us out there, with all of our gear and instruments. We were able to record in this really cool place with, like, secret passages and everything.
The word atmospheric gets used a lot to describe your music. Is that accurate?
I think so. I think that comes from recording in these places that have a natural reverb in them. It’s almost like the atmosphere of the place becomes another member of the band, you know? More accurately, I think it’s this acoustic space that’s a type of a canvas that all the songs are painted on, so it gives it that extra texture or sound that really adds another layer.
When you’re writing songs, are you looking to create a feeling or more of a story?
For me, it’s always about trying to find a balance between both. I’m trying to become more concise as a writer, but I think there’s a balance between delivering a narrative and a mood.
Was there an artist you wanted to emulate as a kid?
Not really. I was sort of into punk rock then, more so as a genre. My first foray into the world of music was kind of through that. The spirit of [punk] really mobilized people; it mobilized me to pick up a guitar and play. I guess the musicianship was secondary to expressing yourself. I think that’s really stuck with me to what I’m putting out now, definitely the DIY spirit and the energy of the thing.
Scottish playwright David Harrower has often been labelled an exponent of “in-yer-face theatre,” a style of drama that emerged in 1990s Great Britain feature narratives unabashedly crafted to shock. Harrower’s Blackbird, on now at the Vancity Culture Lab at the Cultch (a well-designed and much-needed intimate new venue) easily falls in with this style. The one-act play pits the young, volatile Una (Jennifer Mawhinney) against the middle-aged Peter (Russell Roberts). Over the course of 100 minutes, they pick over the remnants of their ruinous sexual relationship, back when Una was just 12 years old.
Appearing out of the blue at his workplace one day, Una confronts Peter (who, having served his jail time, has changed his name from Ray) about the past. Facing each other for the first time in 15 years, there are land mines aplenty to navigate. Accusations and sad recriminations skim the surface of lingering lust, long-buried secrets, and the inevitable ‘ick’ factor of the incredulous question: Was it misunderstood love, or abuse?
Mawhinney’s characterization of Una seems drawn from a display case of standard damaged-goods affectations: lots of hair-twisting, face-scrunching, and bouts of overt sensuality offset by episodes of childlike naïvete. Mawhinney only shows what she’s capable of when she drops the victim’s-whisper delivery and gives Una the necessary depth to move from Lolita-esque caricature to traumatized, complex young woman.
Roberts’s role is the less showy of the two, and though he makes his contrite Peter somewhat sympathetic, the character’s inherently treacherous nature ensures nothing more than a lukewarm reception from the audience. Unfortunately, this is symptomatic of the entire production: Blackbird should, by its very nature, resonate, but this production ultimately proves relatively forgettable, and a far cry from in-yer-face.
My review of The Real Thing appears in this week's WE.
THE REAL THING
Playwright Tom Stoppard’s affection for literature is evident in every carefully crafted word he commits to the page, be it the big-screen hit Shakespeare in Love or the kooky Hamlet coda, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. But the Tony and Academy Award winner proves he’s also a sucker for the seduction of his own hand, refusing to bring an editing eye to his bloated —-but, at times, brilliant — dramedy, The Real Thing.
Making liberal use of the play-within-a-play conceit, The Real Thing tackles the tangled and treacherous relationships between writer Henry (Vincent Gale); his tartly funny actress wife Charlotte (Jennifer Clement, Gale’s real-life wife); her co-star Max (Simon Bradbury); and Max’s own actress wife Annie (Jennifer Lines), who moonlights as a social activist fighting for the rights of imprisoned vandal Brodie (Charlie Gallant).
The first act is promising, if vaguely dispiriting, with high-octane verbal pissing matches that illustrate the familiar decay of a past-its-prime marriage (Henry and Charlotte’s hateful banter), the shallow impulsiveness of lust (Henry and Annie’s affair), and the cuckold’s heartbreak (Max discovering the affair).
The second act flashes forward two years, with Henry and Annie now married, and Annie asking her husband to ghostwrite Brodie’s play. Henry understandably balks, sparking dramatic fights between the two that allow Gale and Lines to gnash at each other beautifully.
Stoppard raises some wonderfully complex questions about love, fidelity and faithlessness, and is at times wickedly astute. But the good bits only account for about 70 per cent of the play. Far less interesting is the extended dialogue between Henry and his 17-year-old libertarian, free-love-enthusiast daughter, Debbie (Julie McIsaac), as well as several interactions between Annie and her young fling, Billy (also played by Charlie Gallant), a substitute for her imprisoned bad boy, Brodie. The performances are strong, the set fantastic, but at two and a half hours, there’s far too much of this Real Thing.
If He Were a Rich Man
What would indie music geek Final Fantasy do with some free money?
By Andrea Warner
Fans of Owen Pallett think of him as a sweet and salty violin virtuoso who looks 12 and wears his geek-heart on his sleeve. After all, he did name his musical project Final Fantasy after the beloved video game, and his second album, He Poos Clouds, dedicates eight of its 10 songs to the schools of magic in Dungeons & Dragons. But he’s more than the loner kid in his basement rocking out the NES.
Pallett’s musical pedigree dates back to his training in classical piano as a teen, and his ultimate graduation from U of T with a degree in composition. His collaborations are too numerous to dwell on, but one notable mention: he co-wrote the strings arrangements for The Arcade Fire’s Funeral and Neon Bible.
Famous friends aside, Final Fantasy enthusiasts mostly want to give Pallett a hug. His self-deprecating manner shines through in moments both funny and sad at every turn, and almost never more so than during his incredible live shows. Each one is a different sonic experience due to his mixing of violin with his trusty loop pedal. He’s usually modest and shy but endearingly cheeky behind his mic, and the front rows at his concerts, if Seattle’s Bumbershoot festival was any indication, are typically packed with awkwardly thin hipsters aching for a moment or two of eye contact, a joke, or a cute quip.
With all things Luxe in mind, Naked Eye asked Pallet to name his five “Rich Guy” fantasies–a task he was happy to indulge us in until the price got too high.
$1k. New clothes. I used to shop at Buy The Pound in Toronto and wear shawls and tights and flowery sweaters. I once went out with a pomelo skin as a hat. My favourite outfit was my Miami Beach-hoser-fag look. But I'm in my late-twenties now, so $1, 000 is like one or two new outfits. I know that big misshapen nylon items are really hot right now, but I'd probably buy a nice Irish woolen sweater that was a couple of sizes too big for me, and pair it with Rick Owens jeans.
$10k. A trip to Bhutan. Would you think I'd be stupid to take my $10,000 and go to Bhutan? You're like, “They don't have cell phone coverage or internet, just beautiful mountains, woven outfits and agriculture. I mean, couldn't you get the same thing from a trip to Terrace, BC?” Well, you're not alone. When I pulled up photos of Bhutan monasteries on the internet, Patrick (his boyfriend/manager) sighed and said, “Why do white people always want to go to remote places? It must be some ingrained colonialism or something.” He wants to go to Las Vegas.
$100k. Now we're talking. With $100,000 I could buy a Steinway [piano]. I could buy Kevin Shields' guitar rig. I could buy an Ondes Martenot, a Moog modular. I could hire an orchestra for 10 days. But not even the most beautiful instrument will give me a hit single. So I'd hire Kanye West to produce a track for me. Could you imagine if rich assholes, instead of buying up penthouse condos on the Toronto waterfront, would just hire Kanye West to produce tracks for them? Within a year, the charts worldwide would be dominated with number one hits like “Baked At The Drake,” “Sexy Spinning Instructor,” and “It Was The Worst Duck Confit I've Ever Tasted.”
$1m. In Toronto, I live right next to the Aston Martin/Rolls Royce dealership. This morning, as I walked by to get a muffin from Loblaws, in my pre-shower tank top and khaki shorts, I noticed that they'd put up over 100 signs in support of our local Conservative candidate. Seeing as I have $1 million, I have no problem with Conservatives. In fact, I love them. They're the best. But the placement of these signs was overbearing and tasteless. I saw a blue-haired man of luxury inside, trying to sell a Phantom to some asshole. I flipped them the bird as I walked by. What else could I do?
My interview with Bruce McDonald appeared in WE this week. It was such a great time! Hope everyone enjoys it.
Bruce McDonald dives into Pontypool
It's 9:15 a.m. when Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo, The Tracey Fragments) ambles in to a downtown café. He has a friendly smile underneath his sandy-grey beard, and his trademark Stetson-style hat (this time in black) and jeans make him look like a cross between a cowboy and a biker. He exudes a certain tough-guy cool — something one would expect from a man who has a reputation for making movies that typically feature sex, drugs, and/or rock ’n’ roll in varying combinations.
It’s the 49-year-old director’s second interview of the morning promoting the fantastic new thriller, Pontypool, his first foray into the blood-and-guts horror genre. Based on Tony Burgess’s 1998 novel Pontypool Changes Everything, it centres on a crusty, opinionated morning-show radio host, Grant Mazzy (played by the delightfully grizzled Stephen McHattie), who’s been exiled to the titular small town, broadcasting with his producer and assistant from a church basement. Suddenly, reports start pouring in that some kind of plague is taking over the town, turning people into zombies, and being spread through the English language.
Hard Core Logo, The Tracey Fragments, and now Pontypool — they’re all adaptations from books. Do you have an inclination toward reading something and then wanting to translate those images in your head?
McDonald: Maybe I read a little more than the normal guy. It’s a kick, you know — the heavy lifting is done, in a way. With a book, you don’t just crack it off in a couple months; it’s often years of work and thought... Not all books make great movies, but I do get a satisfaction in passing the torch. I have a great respect for writers — maybe because I wanted to be a writer myself. It also puts you in the unique position of being a one-man “Yay, CanCon!” advocate. And it’s a fairly exuberant “Yay!” because we have some fairly world-class writers. There’s something nice about when you discover there are these gods standing in your backyard.
What was your first reaction to reading Pontypool Changes Everything? Did you immediately want to turn it into something you could texturize?
Well, the book is a strange and mysterious beast; it’s a collage of a lot of different moments organized around the idea of a language virus. That was the thing that really grabbed me. I loved the playfulness of it, and I could see the real terror. Imagine something as familiar as your language turning against you. It reminded me of Hitchcock’s The Birds — something so ordinary, as opposed to the high concept of something from outer space.
There’s a lot to analyze in this film.
That’s why it’s such a good movie to see when you’re high. (laughs)
Almost the entire movie takes place in this underground radio station, in a church basement, and the characters have no visual proof of what’s transpiring outside at first.
Almost like Dr. Strangelove. That’s the whole thing: It was a bit of experiment, in that we thought we could maybe raise the stakes by making our audience cling to our characters. They don’t have the privilege of seeing the director’s cut outside. Just the fact that we stay there with the characters hopefully creates that same sense of unease and, like, What-the-fuck’s-going-on-out-there? feeling.
When you screened it for everyone, did it achieve what you wanted it to?
Making a movie’s kind of an act of will or an act of mass hypnosis, and you’re totally prepared to do it... and you’re like, “Okay, I know I can do this with four actors in a room with my sister’s camera.” So, that was my first imagining of the movie. All the other stuff that happened — the fact that we got Steve McHattie, this great location to shoot it in, that it was photographed so handsomely, that we could afford projectile vomit — we were like, “Holy shit, this is kind of a dream come true.” My original vision was so lame compared to what was actually done by the gang who arrived to do it.
Starring Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle
Directed by Bruce McDonald
3 stars (out of 5)
By Andrea Warner
Pontypool, the new horror/thriller/zombie mash-up from indie film auteur Bruce McDonald, is a remarkably intelligent, funny, and unsettling addition to the CanCon cannon.
For the viewer, it's total immersion from the opening credits: a simple but effective voiceover, eerily reminiscent of the great Vincent Price, menacingly foreshadowing the ripple effect of big events. The voice belongs to Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a disgraced DJ who's been exiled from the big city to small-town Pontypool, Ontario, where he broadcasts his neutered morning show from a church basement. Extra-grizzled and opinionated, Mazzy likes to stir up shit on the air, much to the consternation of straight-laced producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle, McHattie's real-life wife). In between Mazzy's rants, birthday announcements, and traffic updates, a frantic reporter calls in to say people are turning into zombie-like creatures.
McDonald chooses to build up the tension by having the majority of the horrors take place off-screen. Trapped in the basement with Mazzy and his crew, the audience is effectively held hostage as well. Unfortunately, screenwriter Tony Burgess (also the author of the book Pontypool Changes Everything, on which the movie is based) falls victim to the commonly held notion that audiences need the gift of a neat and clean solution tied up in a big ol' bow. As a result, Pontypool stumbles just short of the finish line, and rapidly devolves into sentimentality. Forgo the last 15 minutes, and Pontypool is the rarest of Canadian indie gems: quirky without being silly, intelligent but never elitist, and pretty damn scary.
By Andrea Warner
Vancouver-born playwright Joan MacLeod, who has nine plays and a Governor General’s Award to her credit, has lived, taught, and toiled from Toronto to Victoria. It’s no surprise, then, that Toronto, Mississippi, proves to be a tender and tasty slice of Canadiana.
Thankfully, there’s no maple syrup or hockey sticks to be found here — just a story about Jhana (Meg Roe), a mentally challenged 18-year-old attempting to navigate adolescence and impending adulthood. Jhana lives at home with her tightly-wound mother, Maddie (Colleen Wheeler), and their poet boarder, Bill (Alessandro Juliani). When King (William MacDonald) — Jhana’s father, a professional Elvis impersonator rolls back into town, everyone’s world turns upside down.
Thanks to MacLeod’s clever, humane writing, and Roe’s deft comic touch, the audience is fully immersed in Jhana’s day-to-day challenges and triumphs, from basic lessons in her life-skills classes to her first crush on a boy. Jhana’s interactions with Maddie are as real as any teenager attempting to exert her independence, and her reliance on Bill is evident: The warm exchanges between the two could melt even the iciest heart. It’s a perfect set-up whose future is threatened when King returns.
Juliani and MacDonald do cocky grandstanding incredibly well, their characters circling each other warily, equal parts awkward and amusing. Bill may be written as non-threatening (after all, he’s a grad student with one book of poetry to his credit, who considers himself a voice for women and minorities), but Juliani brings a subtle masculinity to the role that more than challenges King’s swaggering, virile persona. His chemistry with Wheeler is palpable, and the de facto family they’ve created for Jhana is nicely reflective of an era that ushered in new, non-traditional familial structures (Who’s the Boss immediately springs to mind).
Wheeler gives Maddie a tough protective exterior, which is a realistic defense mechanism for a woman who’s single-mommed it for 10 years, and defended Jhana from bullies and judgmental strangers for nearly two decades. When she says “I always hate the sound of my voice when I talk to you” during one of her fights with King, Wheeler nails the tone of a woman slipping back into bad patterns. But the talented actress brings so much intelligence to the character, it’s hard to believe Maddie would ever have fallen for a guy like King, let alone considered letting him back into her bed.
The only real misstep in the otherwise sparkling gem of a script comes about five minutes shy of the final bow, when the audience endures not just one ending, but three — which smacks of a writer who was just finding her voice (this is MacLeod’s second play). It’s a small complaint, but one that stands out, since everything else is so strong. That said, it’s such a rare treat to witness great writing fueling fantastic performances that Toronto, Mississippi ends up feeling like a warm hug on a cold night.