Thursday, January 24, 2019

film review: Cold War (Zimna wojna)



Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Written by Pawel Pawlikowski and Janusz Głowacki with Piotr Borkowski
  
ChinoKino score: A-

Review by Allan Tong

One of the best films of 2018 is Cold War from Poland. Sure, act three takes a few questionable turns, but Cold War boasts the best cinematography I have seen in a long time, shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Lukasz Zal and unusually framed in 4x3. The film is also driven by strong performances by Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot.

They play turbulent lovers in postwar Poland after Wictor (Kot) hires Zula (Kulig) to sing and dance in a folk music ensemble that crosses Communist Europe. They spark at first sight. Zula is emotional and impulsive. The stoic and handsome Wictor flees to Paris at the height of the Cold War and waits for Zula to join him. What happens after that is unpredictable and is satisfying depending on whether you believe the choices the lovers make (not entirely for me).

Kulig burns up the screen. Her Zula is fiery and mercurial, and commands the screen. Wictor stands by her over 15 years of dizzying ups and downs, though sometimes I wondered why. Holding everything together is the music--ranging from Polish folk to American jazz--and a mesemerizing romance. Again, the cinematagraphy is stunning. It is pure pleasure to watch Cold War.  The Parisian nightclub scenes are the film's highlights, both musically and visually.

 
Cold War's Pawel Pawlikowski won Best Director at Cannes last spring, and I can see why.  He plays it cool on screen, relying on old-school film techniques, including long wide shots and slow cutting to sensitively convey the volatile romance of Zula and Wictor. Their story is loosely based on his own parents.

I don't know if Cold War will beat Roma at the Oscars (also shot in black and white, but less effectively), but it should catch the eye of North American filmgoers. Cold War is haunting and beautiful.


Saturday, January 19, 2019

IDS 2019: bigger but better?



Story by Allan Tong / Photos by Sally Warburton

IDS, the Interior Design Show, returns to frosty Toronto this week (through January 20), in the bigger south building of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. This year's IDS absorbs IIDEX, the beloved design and architecture expo. As usual, IDS kicked off with a party Thursday night complete with DJ, dance floor, food stations and bubbly pouring from various booths. The food, while delicious, was harder to find in past years, because it was spread out more, though there was no shortage of champagne, beer and wine.

 Despite a snowstorm hammering Toronto on Saturday, crowds were decent throughout the afternoon, as seen with capacity audiences listening to interior designers such as Ryan Korban (above). Overall, the quality of design at this year's IDS 2019 remained high. Here are some works that caught our eye:

Black Arts


Hands-down, Evoke Flooring had the best display, complete with DJ and faux-vinyl LP bins

Guild Design Gallery

Lumas

Meyer's eco-friendly household soaps and cleansers

Michelle Vella's wide-eyed art

Back from last year is SMEG

Tat Design

W Studio

Wallumination
Chris Briscoe was among the many DJ's spinning tunes to create the dance party vibe

Two of the Beautiful People enjoying the opening night party

W Studio

Designerstone translucent panels over Dimplex electric fireboxes. No, that doesn't hurt.

Falafels by Tabule were among the food vendors scattered throughout the opening party

Turntable by Thales

Thursday, December 20, 2018

film review: Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku)


Directed by: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Written by: Hirokazu Kore-eda

ChinoKino score: B-

Review by Allan Tong


In ultra-conformist Japan, one family rebels against society by stealing anywhere from grocery shops to the backseats of cars. On the outskirts of Tokyo, Osamu (Lily Franky) and his son Shota (Kairi Jyo) shoplift. Meanwhile, his wife (Sakura Ando), an aunt (Mayu Matsuoka) and grandma (the late Kilin Kiki) chip in by scamming and performing in private peep-shows. Their lives turn one night when Osamu and Shota come upon a tiny girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) in the cold. They take her into their family and groom her to be a shoplifter.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

film review: Border (Gräns)


Directed by: Ali Abbasi
Written by:  Ali Abbasi, Isabella Eklöf and John Ajvide Lindqvist (based on a short story by Lindqvist)

ChinoKino score: B+

Review by Allan Tong

What the hell did I just watch?

Border plays like an art-house European drama but veers into sci-fi, noir and even romance. At times, it unwinds drily, while at others, Border mesmerizes. Throughout, it is unsettling.

Border follows Tina (Eva Melander) as a lonely, cold customs agent. Tina looks part-animal with a big forehead, fang-like teeth, heavy body hair and scars galore. She looks repulsive, and has drawn scorn all her life, from schoolyard bullies to adults who openly call her an "ugly bitch." Naturally, she has developed a thick emotional shell. She isn't warm. She's guarded, and hard to know--and like. Meanwhile, her father (Jörgen Thorsson ) is falling into dementia while her boyfriend (Sten Ljunggren ) leeches off her in a loveless relationship.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

film review: Science Fair


Directed by: Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster
Written by:  Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster and Jeff Plunkett

ChinoKino score: B

Review by Allan Tong

It's a good idea for a documentary: follow nine bright high school students from the States as well as Brazil and Germany as they build innovative science projects to compete at the 2017 International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in L.A. This Superbowl of science pits 1,700 of the smartest teens from 78 countries to battle for the US$75,000 top prize.

Co-director Cristina Costantini knows first-hand what these science geeks are feeling: she herself is a two-time alumna of ISEF. Costantini and her team deftly capture the personalities who star in this film. The most engaging is Anjali (above), a 13-year-old child prodigy from Louisville, Kentucky, who's built an arsenic-testing device that could save millions of lives. Anjali is confident, articulate, but also nervous at competition time. She wins us over instantly.

In contrast, Kashfia is a shy Muslim girl, estranged at a sports-mad high school in Brookings, South Dakota, where nobody knows she's a science whiz. It's unsettling when she explains how she acts extra-nice to strangers to protect herself in this whitebread town just because she wears a hijab.



Myllena is part of a duo from Brazil where the deadly Zika virus has hit her impoverished hometown. Unlike kids in North America and Europe, Brazil's students lack adequate funding for education, never mind the sciences. In a touching moment, her teachers weep as they hope Myllena's success attracts more attention--and money--to science in their schools. Of all the characters in Science Fair, Myllena is the number-one underdog you cheer for.

Over in Germany, Ivo is a friendly, gangly boy who inherited his love of flying from his father. Ivo has taken a century-old single-wing design that today's engineers discredit and has, well, made it fly. Like Myllena, Ivo is excited over his first trip to America.

The film's adult voice is Dr. Serena McCalla, a driven research teacher from Long Island who's coached several immigrant kids to become one of the world's most formidable science teams. She voices the film's central message: support future scientists.

You can't help but cheer these characters, all of them underdogs in their own ways, pursuing a higher cause. After all, they're kids, bursting with optimism and naivete, and struggling to fit in with their peers. But there are too many characters in the film to follow, in particular the American ones whose characteristics overlap and whose lives lack real stakes. The film is too American-centric. I wanted to see more of Myllena who faces the greatest obstacles (poor, doesn't speak English fluently) and is a foreigner competing against the rich Americans on their home turf.

[spoiler alert:] Probably because of access restrictions, the filmmakers couldn't access the actual judging process. The film builds to this very moment, but it never happens. Pity.

Overall, though, Science Fair deserves a good grade.

Science Fair opens Nov. 2 in Toronto, Nov. 9 in Montreal and throughout the fall in other cities.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

film review: Transformer


Directed by: Michael Del Monte
Written by:  Michael Del Monte, Paul Kemp
Featuring:  Janae Marie Kroczaleski

ChinoKino score: A-

Review by Allan Tong

There are many documentaries about bodybuilders and, more recently, trans-people undergoing gender re-assignment, but Transformer is both.

Director Del Monte strikes documentarian gold in profiling Janae Marie Kroczaleski, who is/was Matt, a world record powerlifter. As a child, Matt added muscle to ward off bullies, and now as an adult with three children of his own, he still doesn't feel comfortable in her own skin. It's revealing when she says that most bodybuilders, with their ripped biceps and calves of steel, suffer low self-esteem. That insecurity is the thread that runs through Transformer.

The footage of him as Matt pumping iron is, of course, breathtaking, but it's downright shocking to see Matt turn into Janae as he dons a wig and make-up, then heads off to a gay bar. It's that clash of feminine and masculine that Janae/Matt highlights to the viewer. Is bodybuilding extreme masculinity? How can Matt be drawn to this side of his masculinity, yet only be happy looking into the mirror as a woman?

The film charts Matt's journey to being Janae, a narrative we have seen before, but Transformer offers a new twist through bodybuilding. It's fascinating to see his parents' very mixed reaction before Matt goes under the knife. It's surprising that his three young sons accept Matt's transformation. (By all appearances, Matt is a loving, devoted father.) Unfortunately, Matt's estranged wife is missing from this documentary. Hers would've been a crucial voice. Missing too are Matt/Janae's current lovers. How would such a person accept Matt/Janae's identity and transformation?

The movie moves towards Matt's inevitable surgeries, but lags towards the end. I suspect the 60-minute TV version will flow better.  That said, Transformer is a strong film (pun intended) that will stir your notions on identity and gender.

Monday, October 15, 2018

film review on VOD: The King



Written and Directed by: Eugene Jarecki
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Chuck D, Ethan Hawke, Emmylou Harris, James Carville

ChinoKino score: A

Review by Allan Tong

There are countless documentaries about Elvis Presley, but nothing like The King. 

It's a simple premise: drive Elvis' Rolls-Royce across America, and have guests in the backseat tell his life story. But--and here's the difference--reflect on race, class, democracy and militarism in the King's time and today. The effect is puzzling at first, sometimes brilliant and surprisingly insightful about Elvis himself.

Elvis was a poor kid who made it big, the embodiment of the American Dream. But campaign strategist James Carville laments that that dream has vanished, because the disparity between rich and poor has widened too far. That poverty is starkly seen when Elvis' Rolls rolls into his hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi where poor blacks as well as whites feel forgotten.

Memphis, the home of Sun Records, is little better. It was the center of the Civil Rights Movement and where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. Race dominates this film which explores the thorny issue of whether Elvis culturally appropriated "Negro" music of the early-1950's. Elvis historian Greil Marcus, The Wire creator David Simon, and Chuck D (who called Elvis a racist in "Fight The Power") debate the issue--and their discussion is fascinating, though uncomfortable.

So, was Elvis a racist, or did he simply blend the music he grew up hearing--white country and black blues? Then again, why didn't Elvis endorse the Civil Rights Movement, or even put black people in any of his movies when he had the clout?


Elvis was more than just a brilliant singer, he was a symbol. When he went into the army and starred in G.I. Blues, he heralded American imperialism during the Cold War. Until Elvis' death and beyond, the Colonel's greedy exploitation of his career reflected the ugliest side of capitalism.

Director Eugenge Jarecki is a noted political documentarian (Why We Fight), but despite The King's intellectual and political analysis, his films reminds viewers that Elvis was a person, one with flaws and vulnerabilities, therefore deserving of sympathy. The film's most touching moments come when musician John Hiatt climbs into the Rolls and breaks down, sitting in the place of his hero. Country legend Emmylou Harris laments that Elvis never had a chance to grow up like most adults and so never learned to manage his enormous fame. This weakness ultimately crushed him. "He was doomed," she says.

Many of the guests are musicians, both famous and not, and actually don't sing Elvis' songs in their stunning performances: Emi Sunshine & the Rain, Hiatt and the teenage choir of the Stax Music Academy. There's no shortage of the King himself, given the wealth of vintage footage bursting with sparkling audio.

Celebs and Elvis fans such as Ethan Hawke, Mike Myers and Alec Baldwin, confidantes Linda Thompson and Scotty Moore, and commentators like Van Jones and Dan Rather all weigh in on Elvis. Jarecki gathers an amazing array of voices exhalting, criticizing and commenting on the King. This film makes you think about the bigger picture around Elvis and America, without losing sight of Elvis the musician and pop culture icon. The King is not merely for Elvis fans, but those who want a probing look at America today.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

film review on VOD: Mary Shelley


Written & Directed by: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Featuring: Elle Fanning, Maisie Williams, Bel Powley, Douglas Booth

ChinoKino score: B-

Review by Allan Tong

When this biopic about the 19th-century author of Frankenstein unspooled in theatres last year, it was greeted with apathy, if not disdain. However, it deserves another look on VOD. Elle Fanning carries this uneven film as teenage Mary Shelley, who rebels against her parents by eloping with the flighty, hedonist poet, Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). Leading a life of excess, she arrives at wisdom--and a landmark novel.

Dragging along her younger sister (finely played by Bel Powley), Mary journeys through a world of casual sex and earthly pleasures without a thought (or penny) for tomorrow. The Romantics, as the Shelleys and their ilk were called, were the hippies of early-1800's England, reacting against the uptight rationality and tradition that had straightjacketed England.

Mary Shelley and the Romantics celebrated beauty and imagination, but lacked foresight. Free love was fine, but it also destroyed relationships. And living for today meant being broke tomorrow, especially with a baby in tow, as Shelley had until her infant died.


Fanning does a good job fleshing out the naive, idealistic Mary Shelley who yearns to escape her oppressive stepmother, then transitions into a hardened but wiser young woman. She survives her baby's death, Percy's many infidelities, and poverty. In fact, a feminist streak runs through this film that will strike a chord in today's audiences. Then again, Mary's experiences are supposed to inspire the monster in Frankenstein, a creature who is misunderstood and abused. [spoiler alert] But I didn't sense that Percy horribly mistreated Mary Shelley. Sure, he was a cad, but he also edited her manuscript and championed his wife as the true author of Frankenstein in an age which forbade women from writing books. He stood by her. (The vampiric Lord Byron is the true monster in this film, but that's another story.)

Mary Shelley is a  valid glimpse at the creative process of a pioneering artist. Worth a second look.




film review for VOD: After Everything



Written and Directed by: Hannah Marks, Joey Power
Featuring: Jeremy Allen White, Maika Monroe, Marisa Tomei, Joe Keery 

ChinoKino score: B-

Review by Allan Tong

A young New York couple fall in love, except that he comes down with cancer. Not exactly your typical romantic film. This is a brave film for exploring the devotion and anguish that drives these difficult relationships. A solid idea for a movie, but told from whose point of view?

My bet is hers, Mia, a no-nonsense young woman who works in a cubicle at a marketing firm. Maika Monroe does a good job of fleshing out Mia as she falls in love with the aimless yet flirtatious Elliot (Jeremy Allen White). Mia then nurses him through endless rounds of chemotherapy. If you've ever accompanied a loved one to chemo, then you now how wrenching this experience is for both parties. This film captures that pain. Further, Mia keeps the relationship alive, working for them both, and carrying the strain of balancing work and his cancer therapy.

[spoiler alert]
However, the movie loses momentum, after Elliot survives chemo. Mia changes, and you sympathize with her. Elliot turns into a dick, and his story is simply less compelling. If Elliott is tortured inside for how he treats Mia, we don't feel it. Instead, you want to know how Mia extricates herself from this failed relationship. After Everything should have been told from her perspective.

Elliot is a bit of a mystery. We're not sure what drives him outside of his battle with cancer and him chasing girls. What are his vulnerabilities? His dreams? Or maybe he has none. Does the cancer force him to confront his life-to-date and discover something lacking in his character? What does this experience teach him? Don't know.

Marisa Tomei cameos as Elliot's doctor and is a welcome presence. Also, the friends and roommates of both lovers provide colour and humour to offset the dour subject matter. After Everything strives for compassion, but never gets weepy or cliched. Though flawed, it is an honest movie.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

film review: Fahrenheit 11/9


Michael Moore with fan, Jared Kushner
Director: Michael Moore
Writers: Michael Moore

ChinoKino score: A

Review by Allan Tong

Left or right, you know where you stand with a Michael Moore film and Fahrenheit 11/9 is definitely no exception.

Moore's latest, which premiered at the start of TIFF, is a troubling snapshot of the United States, a country driven to ruin by despot Donald Trump, whom Moore compares to Hitler. Naturally, Trump supporters will despise this film, but surprisingly Democrats will cringe at Moore's shots at the Clintons over their "compromise" liberal politics and the Democratic machine that this film claims stole the party nomination from Bernie Sanders.

The message: both sides of the aisle have forsaken ordinary working Americans and it's time to take democracy back--or it'll disappear.

Fahrenheit 11/9 has a checklist of many of America's current ails. A major one is the water scandal in Moore's hometown, Flint, Michigan, a scandal created by Gov. Rick Snyder that he manufactured to appease his corporate buddies, but has poisoned the poor (and mostly black) children of that beleaguered state. At the recent TIFF premiere, the audience reportedly gasped when Moore said that Snyder ordered the water supply for the town's GM factory be switched back to the clean source, because the dirty water was corroding GM's auto parts. Meanwhile, the kids were stuck with lead-heavy water and permanent brain damage.

This is actually the most compelling part of the film, since Moore does his job as a reporter by letting a whistleblower, residents and a scientist tell their stories. It'll surprise and disappoint lefties to see how then-President Obama let Snyder off the hook during a visit to Flint.

Moore also targets the electoral college (Hillary actually won more votes than Trump), the Parkland school shooting and teachers' strikes in impoverished West Virginia. He reserves his strongest venom for Trump, showing how he incited his followers to beat protestors at campaign rallies and separated the families of Mexican migrants that the last-surviving Nazi presecutor condemns. Moore even highlights Trump's attraction to his daughter, Ivanka, which will make viewers wince.


Moore covers a lot of ground in this film, and at times Fahrenheit 11/9 sprawls, which is a weakness. However, Moore is such a skilled and persuasive filmmaker that you keep watching, clinging to his rollercoaster as it dips and careens, threatening to crash. Hell, even Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner (in vintage footage here) sing Moore's praises as a filmmaker.

Yes, Moore inserts himself to the film unnecessarily at times, but other times it serves the film, like him 'fessing up that he played nice when he appeared alongside the Donald on Roseanne Barr's long-forgotten talk show, because the show wanted him to.

Fahrenheit 11/9 barely mentions the Mueller investigation and he clearly feels that the hope of America lies in activists like a Iraq war vet who's running for office and the teenage activists of Parkland.

Moore's film is a cautionary tale, though, telling audiences that only its citizens can save democracy and that apathy is the real enemy. Will audiences listen?

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Film and glamour: Birks and Telefilm honour six women at TIFF


Actor Pascale Bussières glams it up on the red carpet
Canadians aren't known for glamour, but Monday at TIFF, they dazzled in dresses and sparkled on the red carpet at the sixth Birks Diamond Tribute to the Year’s Women in Film. Birks and Telefilm saluted six women: documentary director Nettie Wild; actors Tantoo Cardinal and Pascale Bussières; screenwriter Susan Coyne; and emerging directors Stella Meghie and Jeanne Leblanc.

The Grizzlies director Miranda de Pencier, honouree and producer Alethea Arnaquq-Naril, star Emerald MacDonald, star Paul Nutarariaq and producer Stacey Aglok MacDonald

Honouree and emerging director Jeanne Leblanc

Documentarian Nettie Wild


Screenwriter Susan Coyne

The Grizzlies star and actor, Tantoo Cardinal

Actor Amanda Brugel

Actor Ann Privu of Reign

Arlen Aguayo Stewart, star of Roads in February

Actor Ayisha Issa of The Hummingbird Project 

Jasmin Mozaffari, director of Firecrackers

Kingsway stars Gabrielle Rose and Camille Sullivan

Actor Laura Vandervoort of Bitten

Actor Sofie Holland of Everest

Monday, September 10, 2018

French cinema champions diversity at TIFF 2018

Cities of Last Things - Alexis Perrin, Winnie Lau, Ho Wi Ding, Hong Chi-Lee, Louise Grinberg 
France's 28 feature-length and short films at TIFF this year herald gender and racial diversity like no other country. Films include Eva Husson's controversial women's war drama, Girls of the Sun, and the China-Taiwan-U.S.-France co-pro, Cities of Last Things. Here are images from the Unifrance reception at TIFF:

Her Job: Marisha Triantyfilidon, Nikos Labot and Dounia Sichov 


High Life director Claire Denis

Le champ de mais (The Field) star Mia Maelzer  


Le champ de mais (The Field) director Sandhya Suri 

Mademoiselle de Joncquieres director Emmanuel Mouret 



Nandita Das, director of Manto 

Duelles: Anne Coesens, Veerle Baetens, Olivier Masset-Depasse, Jacques-Henri Bronckart

Girls of the Sun - director Eva Husson, producer Didar Domehri, and composer Morgan Kibby
Tel Aviv on Fire: Sameh Zoabi, Gilles Sacuto, Milena Poylo, Alice Bloch

The Most Beautiful Couple composer Eric Neveux

The Most Beautiful Couple producer Jamila Wenske

Tom Volf, director of Maria by Callas