Shakespeare on Film | TIFF Cinematheque | Divertimentos: The Films of Matias Piñeiro

Among the many, many reasons I’m a huge Shakespeare nerd is that I love the way he subverts gender conventions. His plays are well aware of the limitations imposed upon women in his society, yet, writing for one of the most powerful female monarchs in history, he subverts these expectations. While it’s too simplistic to say his plays are empowering for women, some of them certainly play with the fluidity of gender roles, and particularly in his comedies, explore the freedom of disguise.

One of my favourite Shakespeare comedies precisely because of this play on gender roles is Twelfth Night. A pair of twins (one male, one female) are shipwrecked and separated on an island and somehow end up in an absolutely ridiculous love quadrangle, which is complicated by the fact that one of the twins, Viola, is in disguise as a man. How much of gender is determined by external signifiers such as clothing? How topsy turvy will the world really turn if we reject social conventions on these signifiers? The play itself is hilarious farce, lighthearted entertainment, yet a closer read reveals multiple points of potential discussion.

It comes as no surprise therefore that Shakespeare’s work can be interpreted time and again, and still appear fresh each time. For Argentinean filmmaker Matias Piñeiro, Shakespeare is not so much a basis of his works, as a springboard from which his films can take off and create something wholly new. This weekend, TIFF Cinematheque presents a retrospective of Piñeiro’s work, introducing Toronto audiences to his films as well as featuring Piñeiro’s Carte Blanche selection, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution (1964), which is loosely based on Stendahl’s 1838 novel The Charterhouse of Parma.

Film still from Viola. Courtesy of Matías Piñeiro

Film still from Viola. Courtesy of Matías Piñeiro

On Sunday, April 6 at 5:30 pm, TIFF Cinematheque presents PIñeiro’s Viola, the director’s riff on Twelfth Night and named after the heroine of Shakespeare’s play. Far from a direct presentation of the Bard’s work, however, the filmmaker creates a completely separate experience. Brad Deane, programmer of the PIñeiro retrospective, states that “while Piñeiro’s films are immensely pleasurable experiences, they can also be difficult to define,” and that is certainly my experience with Viola and its accompanying piece Rosalinda (inspired by Shakespeare’s As You Like It). Both films feature actors as actors reciting Shakespeare lines. Ostensibly rehearsing for a production, their repetition of particular phrases and scenes propel the plot forward, and advance the story of these actors as characters. This play within the play motif is a clear nod to Shakespeare, who used it in such a range of plays as Hamlet and Midsummer Night’s Dream, often using the multiple layers of disguise (actors on stage disguised as characters who are actors disguised as other characters) to reveal some truth.

The actual Shakespearean source narrative is not present in any coherent, recognizable form – Piñeiro’s films are indeed best described as “riffs” on Shakespeare rather than interpretations thereof. Shakespearean influence threads through the work, and possibly to a much more impressive degree than I was able to catch myself. Similar to Shakespearean comedies, Piñeiro’s films are rife with romantic entanglements — couples breaking up, getting back together, simmering with repressed passion — all expressed obliquely, at times only through a certain look between two characters as they recite lines from a Shakespeare play.

Film still from Rosalinda. Courtesy of Matías Piñeiro.

Film still from Rosalinda. Courtesy of Matías Piñeiro.

Rosalinda, the work that began Piñeiro’s fascination with Shakespeare is a short film that TIFF Cinematheque will air immediately before Viola. Featuring a group of actors rehearsing As You Like It in a country house, this feels like a director playing with form and testing the waters somewhat. It’s a vignette of a film, and not a bad one, though the film is so self-consciously obvious in its play with form that the characters don’t really emerge fully as individuals and their story beyond the play never really takes root.

In contrast, Viola feels like a much more confident, much tighter film. The film follows an all female ensemble that mashes up Shakespeare plays to create a completely new plot, and a bike courier who delivers her boyfriend’s pirated DVDs and who eventually crosses paths with the actors. Here is Piñeiro letting loose with his riff on Shakespeare, and it’s a stronger, more compelling film as a result. I love the idea of an all female cast, which completely overturns the all male cast Shakespeare had to work with. Just as Shakespeare used the cross-dressing aspect of male actors playing female parts to explore nuances of disguise and gender roles, Piñeiro presents his own interpretation of this, with female actors taking on the male roles.

I also love that the Shakespearean lines were mashed up from a variety of sources, and Piñeiro takes this a step further in the repetition of rehearsed scenes, where sections of dialogue are alternately selected and repeated, then lines are dropped and other sections of dialogue begin at various points. Each repetition sounds new, and even though we can recognize certain phrases as having been said before, there are varying levels of urgency and emotion in the delivery, such that it seems to mean something different each time.

In one particularly compelling scene, a pair of actresses are rehearsing a scene where one (playing a man’s role) conveys a message of love to the other on behalf of another man, yet soon finds himself captivated by the woman’s beauty. In this particular iteration of the scene, the actress playing the woman’s role is awaiting a call from her boyfriend, about whom she isn’t completely sure. As the actresses rehearse the same scene over and over, the sexual tension between them intensifies, such that it soon becomes unclear how much of the attraction between them is part of the rehearsal, and how much of it is real. Just as in Shakespeare, the line between disguise and reality is blurred.

Divertimentos: The Films of Matias Piñeiro will be at TIFF Bell Lightbox March 3 – 6, and the filmmaker will be present at all the screenings. Along with Viola and Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution, TIFF Cinematheque will also present Piñeiro’s films The Stolen Man and They All Lie, which are derived from writings by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, a nineteenth-century intellectual, activist and former president of Argentina. The full schedule for the weekend is available on the TIFF website.

Trailer for Viola:

 

 

Review | The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, Padma Viswanathan

18142312How does one deal with the loss of loved ones to a bomb on a plane? How does one cope when, twenty years after the attack, suspects are finally brought to trial for the crime? Psychologist Ashwin Rao, who lost his sister, niece and nephew in a fatal bombing of an Air India flight from Vancouver, deals with his grief by writing a book on the families of other victims on that flight. He becomes particularly drawn into the story of one Canadian family, whose members have dealt with their grief in very different ways.

In The Ever After of Ashwin RaoPadma Viswanathan explores various ways that people respond to loss. Through Rao’s eyes, we see the unique difficulties of facing such a violent, unexpected death for a loved one — in one particularly powerful scene, two men from the same family search through images of bodies salvaged from the crash, looking for anyone from their family. One of them looks through the photographs methodically, column by column and row by row lest he miss faces he recognizes. The other lets his eyes dart around, barely registering on one photo before moving to another spot, haphazardly chosen. The reason, the first man realizes and relates to Rao, is that the second man wants to register only his own family members; he doesn’t want the burden of anyone else’s grief.

Along with grief is an undercurrent of anger throughout the story. Rao refers to a book on the bombing written by Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise, and the inadequacies of the text to properly represent the tragedy. For example, a passage in the book refers to the children on the flight, how well they and their families have assimilated into Canadian life, and how tragic their deaths were. Rao points out, and quite rightly, that the children’s “Canadian” traits were  and should be completely irrelevant — the tragedy of their deaths is simply because they died. Tied in to this is Rao’s anger at the Canadian government’s handling of the bomb. Other than their apparent incompetence in solving the crime, Rao compares the bombing to 9/11, and wonders why America took 9/11 personally whereas Canada seemed to consider the bombing an Indian tragedy, rather than a Canadian one, despite the number of Canadians on board.

The root of this anger is political, and it turns out that Rao was in India when Indira Gandhi is assassinated in 1984 and anti-Sikh sentiment turns violent. The horror of the riots is heightened by its contrast with the silly, manufactured horror of a haunted house Rao has set up for the neighbourhood children to introduce them to Halloween. Viswanathan is at her best when contrasting innocence with horror, and continues in this vein when dealing with victims’ stories, particularly families’ memories of the children on the flight. Later, some of the families blame Sikhs for the Air India bombing, echoing the violence back in India.

The thrust of the book is more personal than political however, and soon Rao sublimates his own grief and anger and focuses on the subjects of his book. While these stories are interesting in their own right — the family patriarch for example turns to religion, his daughter is stuck in a sexless marriage, and so on — the story to me loses some of the momentum that propelled the beginning so well. The writing is still solid throughout, as the author switches between perspectives, but the fire has been dampened somewhat, and the story never quite reaches its peak.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Listen to the Squawking Chicken, Elaine Lui

18339631Not just anybody can call their mother a squawking chicken and get away with it; then again, from her memoir, Elaine Lui (Lainey Gossip) has a pretty distinctive mother. “As soon as you hear her, you’ll never forget her,” Lui promises, revealing that “Squawking Chicken” is actually a nickname her mother earned when growing up in Hong Kong because of her “wailing siren” of a voice. We don’t literally hear the Squawking Chicken’s voice and Listen to the Squawking Chicken is ostensibly more about the author’s relationship with her mother rather than the mother herself, but indeed it is the character of the mother that dominates this book and leaves a lasting impression on the reader’s mind.

A quote often used in the book’s publicity, and it captures the feel of the book perfectly:

Most people think I’m exaggerating at first when I talk about the Chinese Squawking Chicken. But once they actually spend some time with her, they understand. They get it. Right away. She’s Chinese, she squawks like a chicken, she is totally nuts, and I am totally dependent on her.

With such a title, Lui faces the risk of turning her own mother into a caricature, yet her obvious affection for the woman shines through, and even at her most “wailing siren” moments, Lui’s mother still retains the complexity and tenderness that makes her such a memorable figure.

The Squawking Chicken is at times a harsh mother, her love for her daughter expressed by making sure her daughter is well equipped for life’s disappointments. On the subject of Miss Hong Kong, she immediately dismisses her daughter’s chances, saying that her daughter didn’t inherit her good looks enough to be a contender for the title. When asked why she tells her daughter ghost stories rather than fairy tales in bed, she quite reasonably points out that it is the hard times that we should prepare for, not the good things that will happen. And when her daughter gets a bit too proud of a high mark in class, the Squawking Chicken loudly and publicly bemoans her arrogance given such an inconsequential achievement. In a world and at a time when children are routinely praised just for trying, it may be difficult to appreciate this somewhat harsher form of parenting, yet underlying it all is such an obvious desire for her daughter to be prepared for life.

Lui also gives us insight into her mother’s story, which reveals much about why she may have adopted such a parenting style. The image of the demure Chinese woman is a completely outdated stereotype, yet Lui’s mother does challenge the traditional Chinese adage about not airing dirty laundry in public. She is fearless in taking any family member’s dirty laundry to public eye, and in one of my favourite scenes, loudly and publicly confronts the mistress of one of her friends’ husband. The reason for this becomes clear as we learn more about her childhood, and the incident that tips her over and forces her to unleash her voice is horrific and somewhat inspiring, a superhero-level epic origin story that transforms an ordinary, nice woman into a remarkable figure.

Lui’s mother is fearless, because she has to be, and she teaches her daughter this same fearlessness. She is a dominant figure in her daughter’s life, and certainly after this book, she will also be a dominant figure in our imaginations. Peppered throughout the book as well are some useful life lessons — don’t cut bangs after thirty, eat a papaya a day (but for Lui’s husband, it must be a banana instead, because reasons) and don’t be “low classy”. Likely, nothing will happen if you don’t obey, and anything that does happen is likely just self-fulfilling prophecy. But, just in case, it can’t hurt to eat that papaya, can it?

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Thank you to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (Flavia de Luce #6), Alan Bradley

17834904The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches takes the Flavia de Luce series in a completely different direction, and while the writing is still great and the mystery enjoyable, I’m not quite sure how I feel about this shift in the series.

The book begins with the return of Flavia’s long-lost mother Harriet, and what that means for the de Luce family. Waiting on the platform for her mother’s train, Flavia receives a hurried, whispered message from a mysterious man, who shortly after gets killed on the train tracks. Winston Churchill makes a cameo, there is a mysterious reference to pheasants, and Flavia returns to Buckshaw with her family. All of this happens in the first chapter of the grandest Flavia de Luce adventure yet.

Previous Flavia mysteries have had a cozy feel, Nancy Drew meets Miss Marple in a small village setting. There have always been hints in the background at a larger mystery involving the de Luce family (much of which I admit I chalked up to Flavia’s rich imagination) and Vaulted Arches finally tackles this mystery head on. Bradley takes Flavia de Luce into Maisie Dobbs territory. There is espionage, matters of national importance, secret codes, and Flavia is caught up right in the thick of it. We still get the classic Flavia elements — bickering older sisters, Dogger, Buckshaw — but the stakes are higher than ever before.

Vaulted Arches also introduces a more mature Flavia. Much more thoughtful than in previous instalments, Flavia appears very conscious of being twelve and on the verge of growing up. She still has her delightfully childish moments, most often when dealing with unlikeable cousin and new character Undine, but overall, this is Flavia growing up, and kudos to Bradley for keeping it real and allowing us to see the character develop. We also get to see a classic Flavia de Luce science experiment, Flavia’s darkest and most disturbing attempt in the whole series, yet also the most fraught with emotional heft. Also a nice counterpoint to Flavia’s growing up, the experiment reveals an almost desperate need to cling to childlike belief, because the potential payoff is so very high.

It’s difficult to keep such a long running series fresh, particularly when there is such a significant thread of a backstory tying everything together and preventing the series from being purely episodic. So in a way, I’m glad Bradley took the series in this direction — it’s a natural progression for Flavia as a sleuth and a way to take the mysteries to another level. Future Flavia mysteries will likely continue on in this vein, and the very next one (minor spoiler alert) will be set away from Buckshaw, a clear signal that this is a whole new type of Flavia de Luce mystery. Personally though, I’ll miss the cozy, small scale feel of the first few mysteries. I’ll certainly keep following the Flavia mysteries, and am excited to see how Bradley takes this series forward, yet I’ll always have a special place on my shelf for the beginning of the series, and the irrepressible turn of the century Nancy Drew racing around the dark passages of her family estate.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | One More Thing, B.J. Novak

18007533B.J. Novak’s short story collection One More Thing is uneven in quality. The stories are comedic, not necessarily all laugh out loud funny, but more the kind of comedy where you end up with a knowing, somewhat bemused, smile at the end. The punchlines in these stories are shared knowledge, insight from an experience that seems fantastical at first, yet  is revealed to be familiar by the punchline. I like B.J. Novak in The Office, and from his bio, I know that he is a writer as well as an actor, so this isn’t just one of those ghost-written Hollywood celebrity titles. I love the cover of the book, the casual, confidential tone of the title echoed in the scribbled intimacy on the jacket. I also like the conceit of the first story — a rematch between the tortoise and the hare, this time with the hare determined to win. Despite the adage at the end, it is the hollowness of victory that resonates long after reading the tale. So when I began this book, I was very much predisposed to loving it.

At his best, Novak is very, very good. Particularly in some of his longer stories, he turns a lens towards an aspect of life that is right on point, though his approach is so sly that it takes a while to get the point, if indeed we ever do. In one of my favourite stories, a man seeks out his grandmother in heaven because of a childhood promise to meet up after death, except the grandmother keeps putting him off, and it turns out, she’s too busy partying with Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and the like to hang out with him. The punchline is in the big reveal, and there’s the comedic moment of surprise and reversal. But like any good comedy, the power is in the emotion beneath the surprise. There’s something bittersweet about the ending — when the grandmother explains to the man that they’ve both changed since that childhood promise was made, it reminds us of how much we do change and lose our childhood selves. But there’s also something satisfying about it — both grandmother and grandson end up happy, living separate lives in heaven. I’m not quite sure what the story means, but there’s that sense at the end of it, as in all good stories, that there is something indefinable beyond the page.

In yet another favourite, a man purchases a made-to-order girlfriend, who is perfect in every way, until she starts becoming emotionally needy and he is ill-equipped to cope. A somewhat less restrained version of the movie Herexcept unlike Scarlett Johansson’s character, the one in this story is stuck in a particular body and unable to explore the world beyond being the protagonist’s girlfriend. The story is thoughtful and smart, and while I wish Novak had added more complexity to his characterizations, the story still packed a punch.

Despite some strong works, many of the stories are simply okay. There’s the slightest touch of insight at the end, yet the impact fails to linger barely a page after. It’s possible to make a really short story (less than a page long) powerful, yet many of Novak’s shorter works are more likely to elicit a shrug and turn of the page than anything else. You’d think, “Uh huh, so what?” then realize Novak’s left you nothing to work with and you just need to move on to the next story. Worse are some stories that seem too self-consciously funny or clever. You can just hear the suspense building up and the comic letting loose with a punchline and waiting for the audience to laugh. It doesn’t work on the page — the buildup is too brief and the punchline not enough of a surprise to elicit the desired response. And the obviousness of what that desired response should be just makes it annoying.

One More Thing is worth checking out at a library for a few gems. It’s best read by dipping into a story at a time, in between other tasks in the day, rather than read cover to cover, particularly in one sitting. I’ve heard good things about the audio book, which was narrated by Novak himself and some other well known actors, and perhaps that’s a much better medium for this.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Boy Nobody, Allen Zadoff

14740626Allen Zadoff takes the teen-on-a-mission trope to a whole new level in Boy Nobody. The title character is an assassin who works for a mysterious agency. A teenage boy without a past, he is able to slip into the school system, strike a casual friendship with the son or daughter of the target, make the kill and then disappear before anyone connects him to the death. Things get complicated when he falls in love with the daughter of his next target, the mayor of New York City. To make matters worse, he’s been having flashbacks of his life before he became Boy Nobody, which hint that he may have been a victim himself once, and that his current life was forced on him against his will.

Boy Nobody is an action-packed YA thriller and a quick, exciting read. I didn’t expect to like the romance, particularly when I started liking how badass Boy Nobody was as an assassin. But I like Sam — she’s smart and sharp, and able to see through Boy Nobody’s veneer. She calls him out when he’s lying or not standing up for a bullying victim, but she isn’t over the top acerbic either, nor is she by any means perfect. While part of me did wish he would just fulfill his mission already and set to work learning about his own past, another part of me understood why he kept hesitating, and why he began wondering about his orders in general in the first place.

This is the first book in the series, and I can just imagine how exciting the next books will be, as Boy Nobody delves ever deeper into his past and into the organization that sends him on missions. In the meantime, this first book is an exciting ride, a more action-packed, less introspective version of Barry Lyga’s Game series. I particularly love how the romance plays out — the turn it takes is unexpected and, I think, a brave and necessary move. If it were the 90s, I’d say this series would make the perfect TV show. I don’t know if there’s a market for this type of show these days, but as a book series at least, it’s a fantastic read, and I look forward to the rest of the series.

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Thank you to HBG Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Blog Tour | Review and Giveaway: Empress of the Night, Eva Stachniak

Empress_BlogTour

I love historical fiction, particularly stories about the Tudors, and I was eager to read up on another powerful monarch, Russia’s Catherine the Great, in Eva Stachniak’s new novel Empress of the Night. Unlike Stachniak’s earlier novel The Winter Palace, which tells Catherine’s story from the perspective of a trusted servant, Empress of the Night is narrated by Catherine herself. Suffering from an illness and close to death, Catherine reflects on her life, from her marriage to Peter and ascent to power to the various challenges she faced as a woman running an empire and defending her country against its enemies. In one particularly striking scene, she complains that her male advisers seem to think all one has to do is raise their voice and Russia’s problems will be solved; they don’t understand the delicacy required in leadership. Catherine the Great was a powerful woman, and a heroine to cheer for.

There are many things I like about Empress of the Night. I like that Stachniak chose to focus on a powerful female monarch who hasn’t been given much attention in popular media. (Much as I love the Tudors, even I got tired of the endless stream of novels written about them.) I like that Stachniak’s descriptions put us right in Catherine’s head — at one point, Stachniak describes the sweat trickling down Catherine’s back during a significant occasion. Such details heighten the realism of the scene, and humanize Catherine. There are also a lot of interesting bits, particularly about the challenges of being a strong-willed woman with the power over an empire. Along with the scene I cited earlier, there are moments where Catherine is criticized for her intelligence and candour, and other times where she fights back, and cuts down another character with a sharp look and single witticism. I love these instances of Catherine taking a stand and revealing the strength that made her such an influential leader.

Despite some interesting moments, I found the book to be a very slow read. The narrative framing device detracted from the flow and the time shifts were confusing. Stachniak’s love for detail and description made Catherine’s world feel real at times, yet the writing overall felt uneven and the language at times ponderous. The story felt disjointed — the promise in the flashbacks is bogged down by the present day, and the flashback vignettes didn’t quite tie together as well as they could have.

Being completely unfamiliar with Russian history, I was eager to learn about Catherine’s reign, and about the powerful woman who’d made such an impact at a time when it was mostly men who held the power. This story however focused more on Catherine’s personal life and while that’s certainly a valid authorial choice, I wish I’d seen more of Catherine as a monarch. Even the depiction of Catherine’s personal life could have been explored better — we hear about some of her love affairs yet feel little of the passion behind them. For example, when one of her lovers reveals his true colours and breaks her heart, it hardens her resolve to be more of a leader, a woman dependent on no man. This was a pivotal moment and exciting in terms of the character development, yet we barely get a sense of the passion that drove the affair in the first place. So when the big reveal came, we knew it was significant because of Catherine’s response, but it was difficult to understand why.

That being said, Empress of the Night is a welcome glimpse into a fascinating historical figure. It has piqued my interest in the period and in Catherine herself. A bit of knowledge about the history may help when reading this book, though it isn’t strictly necessary. Catherine the Great is such a significant figure in Russian history, and Stachniak’s novel reveals the human being behind the legend.

GIVEAWAY

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BLOG TOUR

Curious what other bloggers thought of this book? Check out the other participants in the blog tour for their views!

March 24: Downshifting PRO

March 25: Retreat by Random House

March 27: Literary Hoarders

March 28: Lost in a Great Book

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and the invitation to be a part of this blog tour!