Wednesday, November 6, 2019

film review: Frankie


Directed by Ira Sachs
Written by Ira Sachs & Mauricio Zacharias

ChinoKino score: D

Review by Allan Tong

Frankie is a French drama that is supposed to center on a movie star, Frankie (Isabelle Huppert), who reveals a life crisis to friends and family in the span of a day. This includes her husbands, current (Brendan Gleeson) and past (Pascal Greggory), her spoiled adult son (Jeremie Renier) and stepdaughter (Vinette Robinson). Rather than entwine hers, their storylines overtake Frankie's and the film loses its unifying force right off the bat. Frankie lacks focus. Characters come and go, often quarreling with another, while individual scenes lack emotion or impact. Frankie's friend and hairdresser Ilene (Marisa Tomei) journeys from New York to Portugal, where the film takes place, with Frankie's hope that she will spark with her son. Instead, Ilene journeys with boyfriend, Gary (Greg Kinnear), who is working on the latest Star Wars shoot nearby. In fact, this storyline is the most fleshed-out, as the couple grapple with their future together. Tomei and Kinnear are the only characters in Frankie who feel real, and Tomei steals the show.

Monday, September 9, 2019

French cinema graces the Unifrance red carpet at TIFF 2019

Story & photos by Allan Tong

Unifrance hosted its annual TIFF party last Saturday. Stars and filmmakers of Pompeii, The Two of Us, La Belle Epoque and many others graced the red carpet at the Fifth and Easy near the TIFF Bell Lightbox:

Jayro Bustamante, director of Llorona

Nadav Lapid, director of Synonyms

Novera Rahman, star of Made in Bangladesh

Sandra Kogut, director of Three Summers

star Sofiane Zermani, director Rebecca Zlotowski, star Dali Benssalah & director Sabri Louatah of Les Sauvages

Adam Bessa, star of Mosul

Alice Winocour, director of Proxima

Producer Clement Duboin, director Anna Falgueres, director John Shank, producer Valerie Bournonville & producer Jasmyrh Lemoine of Pompei

Director Nicolas Bedos, star Doria Tillier & producer Francois Kraus of La Belle Epoque

writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu of The Whistlers    

Monday, August 19, 2019

film review: Aquarela


Directed by Victor Kossakovsky

ChinoKino score: B

Review by Allan Tong

Aquarela is Portuguese for "watercolour" and an apt title for a 90-minute visual essay about the power of water. Think of the Koyaanisqatsi films, visual feasts portraying nature without any narration or characters. These are films you have to watch on a big screen, unless your home movie theatre backs out into a drive-in.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

film review: Cold Case Hammarskjöld



Directed by Mads Brügger


ChinoKino score: A-

Review by Allan Tong


Cold Case Hammarskjöld asks, Did somebody murder United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld?

In 1961, African nations were shaking off their European colonial masters to be independent. Sweden's Dag Hammarskjöld backed their independence, but upset European governments and big mining corporations who were making money off the continent. One night, Hammarskjöld's airplane went down in northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) as Hammarskjöld was heading to attend cease-fire negotiations during the Congo Crisis. The official reason for the crash was pilot error, but Danish director Mads Brügger calls that a lie. His film explores the cause of the crash in a painstaking search that unspools like a murder mystery.

Friday, August 2, 2019

film review: David Crosby: Remember My Name



Directed by A.J. Eaton


ChinoKino score: A-

Review by Allan Tong


I don't like David Crosby, even though he played for two of my favourite bands: The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. My reason: Crosby is a spoilt, arrogant loudmouth who's lucky he's gotten this far.

So, I'm surprised that A.J. Eaton's new documentary sums up these exact sentiments--and straight from Crosby's mouth without any sugarcoasting. At 76, the ailing and broke Crosby knows that the road ahead is short, so in Remember My Name he reflects on his rocky past and gets a ton of things off his chest. "Time is the final currency," he says.


Crosby came from a privileged upbringing and became a star with legendary L.A. band, the Byrds, at 23, when they hit number one by fusing Bob Dylan and the Beatles in Mr. Tambourine Man. Three years and several hits later, head Byrd, Roger McGuinn, kicked Crosby out of the group for being an asshole. This is a theme in Crosby's life. "Big ego, no brains," Crosby himself admits.

After the Byrds, he fell in love with newcomer Joni Mitchell. Unlike McGuinn, Mitchell (sadly) doesn't appear on camera, but Croby's recollections are vivid and frank. Falling in love with her, he admits, "was like falling into a cement mixer." He recalls the moment she bitterly broke up with Crosby by playing him a new song. Twice.

"I don't think I was a good lover," he confesses. "I was selfish." Graciously, though, Crosby praises Mitchell as a songwriter without peer.

Crosby then joined Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. It's no secret that this was a volatile group. Eaton uses home movies throughout the film, and there is one cringeworthy moment when CSN quarrel and Crosby is angrily called a hypocrite over some matter.

As CSNY became America's number-one band, Crosby's longtime girlfriend, Christine Hinton, was killed in a car accident. This tragedy triggered his long descent into heroin and cocaine that led to a prison term in 1982.

Her death and his temper are his Achilles heels, and he admits he shouldn't be alive. "I was tremendously lucky--and didn't realize how lucky I was."

Though it's a cliche, music keeps him going. The film follows him on the road recently as an aging, grey-haired solo singer who admits he needs to rest more between dates. He's diabetic and suffers from heart problems, the price of decades of self-abuse. His condition is so rough that his wife, Jan, fears that each time Crosby leaves on tour, she may never see him again.

Crosby can still sing. His voice soars in those concert clips. His voice rings with conviction when he recalls the best music he recorded in the past. One highlight of the film is him revisiting Kent State and recalling the infamous 1970 shooting of four students that inspired CSNY to record Ohio, one of rock's most powerful protest songs.

CSNY continued to sing that anthem until a few years ago, when Crosby carelessly slagged Neil Young's new wife, Darryl Hannah, on live radio. The two haven't talked since, but Graham Nash won't talk to him either. The film is sketchy about the reasons why and, inexplicably, doesn't mention that Nash bought Crosby's publishing rights during Crosby's junkie years and sold them back to him at cost. That was a magnanimous act that litereally saved Crosby's ass. It's annoying that the film doesn't completely explain why Nash refuses to talk to Crosby anymore.

Cameron Crowe does a fine job interviewing Crosby on camera. Crowe first interviewed him 1974 when he was a teenage Rolling Stone reporter. Eaton relies heavily on these interviews, plus those of Crosby's former bandmates and acquaintances, like the Eagles' Glenn Frey. He wisely employs home movies shot by Crosby and modern animation to illustrate moments like the Byrds firing Crosby.

Credit Crosby for opening his life so nakedly in this film. Here's a man with many regrets. I still don't like the guy as a person, but I walked away from this film understanding him and, yes, feeling sorry for him.

Monday, April 22, 2019

play review: Four Chords and a Gun



Written by: John Ross Bowie
Directed by: Richard Ouzounian


ChinoKino score: B+

Review by Allan Tong

Let me be upfront: I'm a Ramones fan, which is why ChinoKino is making an exception and reviewing this play. And yes, it's a play, not a musical. Four Chords and a Gun examines the fateful collaboration between punk rock pioneers, The Ramones, and legendary, but batshit-crazy record producer Phil Spector. In 1979, Spector produced the Ramones' fourth album, End of the Century. They came together because, frankly, both were desperate for a hit.

If you know the Ramones, then you know the dynamics at work here. Sensitive, nice-guy singer Joey Ramone clashes with mean, tyrannical leader Johnny Ramone, culminating in Johnny stealing Joey's girlfriend, Linda. This betrayal forever breaks Joey's heart. Bassist Dee Dee is a junkie. And drummer Marky is an alcoholic, but is also grounded enough to act as the play's narrator. All characters supply comic relief. The focus, however, lies on the Joey-Linda-Johnny triangle, overlaid by Spector who acts as a catalyst for change in the recording studio and without.

Legend tells us that the lunatic Spector ordered the Ramones to record in the studio at gunpoint, which is the centerpiece of this play. The Ramones were rock 'n' roll purists, churning out primal two-minute, four-on-four rock tunes while Spector was renown for his multilayered production techniques dubbed the Wall of Sound that demanded hundreds of takes. Hard-nosed Johnny confronted Spector the most, and those two butted heads over and over.

The play does a decent job of dramatizing the gun legend (though Marky has denied it ever happened). Spector drove Johnny nuts with endless takes and by adding strings to Ramones songs. The play also does a fine job of painting the triangle. Cyrus Lane pulls no punches portraying hard-nosed Johnny, and Ron Pederson rescues Spector from being a cartoon, while Paolo Santalucia paints some nuances to Dee Dee, a secondary character. Vanessa Smythe truly shines as Linda, both as caregiver and confidante to both Joey and Johnny, but strong enough to stand up to Johnny when his ego gets the best of him (and it often does).

However, Joey's heartbreak is slightly underplayed, and the play's ending is a little flat after a long build-up. Overall, Ramones' fans will be pleased with this production, as will fans of rock and pop culture.

Now, if you're expecting a musical, you won't find it here. This is a straight drama punctuating about five dysfunctional, creative souls. However, a tribute band (above) plays a blistering 20-minute set immediately after the 90-minute play, so definitely stay for them.

Four Chords and a Gun plays at the Fleck Dance Theatre - Harbourfront Centre, 207 Queens Quay West until April 28.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

VOD review: Jack of All Trades



Directed by: Harvey Glazer, Stuart Stone


ChinoKino score: B+

Review by Allan Tong

What are your old baseball cards worth?

That's the question behind the documentary, Jack of All Trades, where Toronto actor Stuart Stone searches for the answer, which in turns triggers a quest to find his estranged father who once ran a sports card empire.

Stone's adventure starts in his mother's condo where he rescues a few unopened boxes of vintage baseball cards from his childhood in the late-1980s. At that time there were 10,000 shops across North America, and the industry was worth $1.2 billion by 1991. Stuart's old man, Jack, was running 11 Sluggers shops and raking in the cash. A quiet hobby that began in the 1950's exploded in the 1980s.


Excited, Stuart (with his older sister, Karie, as moral support) takes his old cards to a card collecting show, but is crushed to learn they're worthless. What happened?


Stone uncovers the answer as he questions card retailers, big-time collectors, retired baseball star Jose Canseco, Topps (the last big card-maker) and a sports journalist. The market peaked when elite card producer, Upper Deck, oversupplied the market with its treasured 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card. Before Upper Deck, sports cards were homely looking products where stale, dry bubblegum stuck to the backs of cards. Upper Deck elevated baseball cards from the minor to the major leagues with classy, slick and elegant designs. They were beautiful. (Disclosure: I collected baseball and hockey cards as a kid, though retired before the Upper Deck era.)

Unfortunately, Upper Deck also pumped out an oversupply of that Griffey rookie card to meet greedy demand. Speculation went mad. Ultimately, supply became distorted and reduced the value of that and other cards.

Baseball cards are supposed to surprise you. You open a pack and pray that an all-star lies inside. That's the fun. That creates scarcity. Scarcity drove up demand of the pre-1980s cards, so what happens when there's an abundance?

The bubble burst just as Stone's father abandoned his family for another woman. The movie takes a risk interweaving Stone's personal story with the card one, though overall it pays off. At times, Stone's story intrudes on the card one as the narrative switches uneasily from one to the next. Which story is this film telling?

It's telling both, of course, and the ending ties them together in heartfelt fashion. It helps that Stone is a mensch, who candidly reveals the painful secrets of his past. Sister Karie offers a steadying perspective that is detached yet intimate. (The film's title doesn't work, though.)

Baseball fans will love this film, but Jack of All Trades is more than a sports story. It's about dysfunctional families and broken childhoods. It's about reconciling before the game is over.




Thursday, February 28, 2019

film review: Greta




Directed by Neil Jordan
Written by Ray Wright and Neil Jordan
  
ChinoKino score: C

Review by Allan Tong

Greta is entertaining for the wrong reasons. The new Neil Jordan film is supposed to be a thriller-horror about a stalker (along the lines of Misery), but winds up being an uninentional parody. Pity, because it stars world-class talent Isabelle Huppert and the fine, young actress Chloe Grace Moretz.

The story boils down to older Greta (Huppert in an English-speaking role), ensnaring young Frances (Moretz). Lonely widow Greta turns Frances into her surrogate daughter while Frances recently lost her mother. Both women are disconnected from their families, so they befriend each other spending evenings where Greta teaches Frances the piano among other things. Frances prefers to hang out with this older French-Hungarian woman than younger women her age.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Artist Project showcases Canadian art this weekend in Toronto


Jason Soule reimagines Hollywood through an indigenous lens

Story and photos by Allan Tong

Art lovers braved the icy sidewalks to bask in art by over 300 Canadians at the annual Artist Project, running through tomorrow, Feb. 24. Opening night on Thursday in the Better Living Centre was a party with food and drink stations offering samples of Between the Lines wine and Just Craft Soda among others. Line-ups were longer for the food, requring 5-10 minutes for a falafel ball or a bag of popcorn. Crowds were heavy and matched last year's traffic. Whether the art was better is a matter of personal taste, but I felt it equalled last year's. Below are are my picks.

Jackie Lee was happy to show off her prints and screenprinting

Renee Bellavance gets colourful

Not only paintings, but cards and posters were on display including these dog-loving cards by Cassidy van Leeuwen

Joel Sullivan's iron sculpture

The opening night boasts food and drink stations scattered across the Better Living Centre. There was enough wine and beer flowing, but the few food stations required a 10-minute wait. The most popular was the falafels by Tabule (below).


Sophie Falconer
Todd Monk


Harvey Glazer's Pornigami

Painting dominates the Artist Project, but there are also fine photgraphers like Bryan Wilcox

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.