Sunday, January 15, 2017

film review (Netflix): Miss Sharon Jones!


Director: Barbara Kopple
Featuring: Sharon Jones, The Dap Kings

ChinoKino score: A-

Review by Allan Tong

Originally released before her death last November, Miss Sharon Jones! now serves as a memoriam to the late, great soul singer. This heartwrenching film by renown documentarian, Barbara Kopple (Harlan Country, U.S.A.), and just released on Netflix, chronicles Jones' battle against pancreatic cancer for seven months in 2013 after her diagnosis. It's not your typical glossy music doc, but a war movie.

First of all, Jones was an anomaly in the youthful world of music. She struggled for many years signing in wedding bands and even working as a corrections officer at Rikers Island before gaining fame in her fifties. As she recounts in the film, record execs told her she was too black, too fat and too short to make it big. Thankfully, she proved them wrong.

The only weakness of Kopple's film is that it hardly touches on Jones' early struggles. Jones' pre-cancer life remains sketchy to newbies and fans alike and would have explained where her perseverance and positivity to fight cancer came from.

Miss Sharon Jones! chronicles the battle she waged, and anyone who's lost a friend or relative to cancer will recognize this war. Jones weeps as a barber shaves off her bouncy locks of hair. At a studio rehearsal, she vetoes a tour because she's too weak to dance onstage, never mind stand. Famous for her acrobatics onstage, like her idol James Brown, a bald, thin Jones laments that she can only sit for now.



Cancer affects not only Jones, but the people around her. Her managers struggle to keep bookings going yet bend over backwards to accommodate their star's health. The Dap Kings, possibly the greatest soul band on the planet, support their friend, but also wonder how they can pay their mortgages, since the banks have read that Jones has cancer. Reality vs.showbiz.

What remains constant is that voice. Jones was the heir to the great soul shouters of the sixties (Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding) comparable to Amy Winehouse (who also recorded with the Dap Kings). Even emaciated and undergoing chemo, Jones can still raise a church roof as seen in an amazing scene where she sings gospel or on the Ellen show when she recovers enough to roar and shake her hips again.

However, as she regains that strength, Jones knows that the cancer can return at any moment. The monster never goes away, and unfortunately we know her outcome. But this film offers a ray of hope, as symbolized by Jones' music. She's dancing and singing in the face of death, that there's something worth fighting for, something to live for even against the odds.

And that's heroic.

Friday, January 13, 2017

film review: Live By Night


Director: Ben Affleck
Writer: Ben Affleck
Featuring: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Sienna Miller

ChinoKino score: B

Review by Allan Tong

A showcase of Ben Affleck's talents behind and in front of the camera, Live by Night is an uneven gangster flick redeemed by an intriguing storyline and moments of poignancy that raise this film above pulp fiction.

Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Live by Night is about Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a disillusioned World War I vet and the bad son of a Boston police captain, who goes into bootlegging during Prohibition.

There are scores of films about the Italian mob, but few about the Irish. This is a welcome change. Coughlin's ethnicity continues to play a role after the bloody first act set in 1920's Boston. Live by Night then shifts to Tampa, Florida after Coughlin barely survives Irish rival, Albert White and leaves behind his love, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller).

1920's Tampa is an uneasy melting pot of blacks, Cubans, other Latin Americans and the Klan. Coughlin strikes a deal with the Italian mob to create a rum-running empire. He inevitably clashes with the Klan, who despise the Papist Coughlin and his black-Latino girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), but strikes an alliance with Tampa Sheriff, Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper). Coughlin prospers until Figgis' born-again daughter threatens his plan of opening a giant casino, backed by Italian mobster Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone).

I haven't read Lehane's book, but no novel fits neatly into a two-hour film. A book needs to be streamlined by discarding subplots and removing unnecessary characters. I suspect Affleck hasn't done enough condensing, since the first 20 minutes of the film are quite busy, then the story takes an abrupt turn that nearly breaks the story's overall flow. Further, the Emma Gould romance is completely unnecessary.


However, Sheriff Figgis and his daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning), uplift the second part of the film with an unexpected twist (no spoilers here). Chris Cooper lends Figgis depth and pathos to avoid a one-dimensional character. Saldana is a fine actress, but her character is underwritten, so she remains the obligatory gangster's wife in the background.

However, it's groundbreaking to see an interracial couple in a gangster flick or Hollywood blockbuster. In fact, race plays an important undercurrent throughout the film. America in the 20's and early-30's is a land of casual bigotry where Klansman terrorized at will. It's rare to see an American film capture this historic climate of intolerance--and we need these reminders in 2017.

As for Affleck, I didn't think he was right for this role until the very end. He's underplaying it too much, I thought. He needs to play Coughlin bigger, a little less Michael Corleone of the first two Godfathers and a little more Tony Soprano. But Affleck's icy calm serves the climax well and avoids the bombast that mars too many gangster tales.

Live by Night is messy in places and sprawls, but it has moments that shine and is worth a look.


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

film review: Gold


Director: Stephen Gaghan
Writers: Stephen Gaghan, Patrick Massett and John Zinman
Featuring: Matthew McConaughey, Édgar Ramírez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll

ChinoKino score: C

Review by Allan Tong

Matthew McConaughey sports a pot belly and bald head to portray Kenny Wells, half of a goldmining team that hits the jackpot in Indonesia in this morality play loosely based on the Bre-X scandal of 1993. Performances by him and his partner in business, Édgar Ramírez (as Michael Acosta), and love, Bryce Dallas Howard (as Kay) are sound, but we never quite fall behind Wells and cheer him as he strikes it rich nor pity him as he slides down. Another missed opportunity is Howard, whose Kay remains underdeveloped throughout and relationship with Kenny doesn't payoff at the end.

Monday, December 19, 2016

film review: Harry Benson: Shoot First

Directed by Matthew Miele & Justin Bare


Review by Allan Tong

You've likely seen this iconic image. But in February 1964, nobody expected a "pop" group of English moptops called The Beatles to last. Similarly, nobody bet on a loudmouthed black boxer named Cassius Clay to become the world heavyweight champion.

Scottish-born photographer Harry Benson wasn't lucky to photograph these two legends crossing paths--he was smart and hard-working. A fine, new documentary by Matthew Miele and Justin Bare reveals that it was Benson's idea to pair the Fab Four with Clay (later to rename himself Muhammed Ali). The Beatles were Miami, Benson needed shots for his editor, and Clay/Ali was in town.

Monday, December 12, 2016

5 cool things at IIDEX this year



Story and photos by Allan Tong

With a movie screening, walking tours, book signings, workshops, panels, awards and parties, IIDEX, Toronto's annual interior design expo, has blossomed into a multimedia affair that's expanded beyond its two days (Nov.30-Dec.1) on the convention floor. Here are five cool things we saw at IIDEX (in no particular order):

Monday, October 31, 2016

Film review: Gimme Danger

Directed by Jim Jarmusch

Review by Allan Tong

Punk pioneers, The Stooges, receive the deluxe rock doc treatment in the entertaining, funny and illuminating Gimme Danger. Makes sense that indie king, Jim Jarmusch, tells the story of the iconoclastic band that hailed from working class Michigan during the flower power era then roared across stages and recorded three seminal albums before drugs poisoned the band.

Stooges' front man, Iggy Pop, dominates the storytelling and it's clear he's the driving force throughout the band's frenetic history. Iggy's reminisces are detailed and warm. It's jarring to see him (as young James Osterberg) in old photos wearing suits and posing with his early bands behind drum kits (he started as a drummer). Blues freak Osterberg then travels to Mecca (aka Chicago) and gradually finds his voice by banding with the Asheton brothers, Ron and Scott, and a bassist, and mentoring under rock revolutionaries, the MC5.

Friday, October 28, 2016

145 documentary features submitted for 2016 Oscar race


One hundred forty-five features have been submitted for consideration in the Documentary Feature category for the 89th Academy Awards®.

Several of the films have not yet had their required Los Angeles and New York qualifying releases. Submitted features must fulfill the theatrical release requirements and comply with all of the category’s other qualifying rules in order to advance in the voting process. A shortlist of 15 films will be announced in December.

Films submitted in the Documentary Feature category also may qualify for Academy Awards in other categories, including Best Picture, provided they meet the requirements for those categories.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

10 documentary shorts named to Oscar's 2016 shortlist


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences today announced that the field of Documentary Short Subject contenders for the 89th Academy Awards has been narrowed to 10 films, of which 5 will earn Oscar nominations.

Voters from the Academy’s Documentary Branch viewed this year’s 61 eligible entries and submitted their ballots to PricewaterhouseCoopers for tabulation.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

85 countries in competition for 2016 Foreign Language Film Oscar

Eighty-five countries have submitted films for consideration in the Foreign Language Film category for the 89th Academy Awards. Yemen is a first-time entrant.

The competitive Foreign Language Film category was introduced in 1956 for the 29th Academy Awards. In celebration of its 60th anniversary, the Academy has created a complete playlist of acceptance speeches and a poster gallery of all the Foreign Language Film Oscar winners.

The 89th Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 26, 2017, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT. The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Toronto International Film Festival Announces 2016 Award Winners


The Toronto International Film Festival® announced its award winners at a ceremony at TIFF Bell Lightbox today, hosted by Piers Handling, CEO and Director of TIFF, and Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director of the Toronto International Film Festival. To watch the presentation, visit tiff.net/ceremony. The 41st Festival wraps up this evening.

The short film awards below were selected by a jury comprised of American filmmaker Abteen Bagheri (That B.E.A.T.), French filmmaker Eva Husson (Bang Gang), and Canadian filmmaker Jeff Barnaby (Rhymes for Young Ghouls).

SHORT CUTS AWARD FOR BEST CANADIAN SHORT FILM
The Short Cuts Award for Best Canadian Short Film goes to Alexandre Dostie’s Mutants. The jury remarked, “Mutants takes a summer in Quebec and infuses it with a ribald lyricism. Awkward moments of sexual awakening paired with self cannibalism and self immolation rise it above standard nostalgia. It was a film that took chances with both its subject matter and humour, and framing it through the eyes of children. Congratulations.” The award offers a $10,000 cash prize.

TIFF and the art of self-promotion

BaBa Zula rocks TIFF
Story & photos by Allan Tong

Each September, the world's second-largest film festival (after Cannes) attracts armies of filmgoers, showbiz heavies and journos. A while back (I don't know when), some marketing folks began to open drop-in lounges to promote everything from eyeliner to self-published mafia memoirs. Meanwhile, state film commissions throw lavish parties to promote their nation's filmmaking industry while film producers orchestrate death-defying stunts. On King Street, which was closed to traffic during the first half of the fest, tea, chocolate and other vendors were giving away samples to long lines. They all aim to generate Tweets and blog space for themselves and their clients. Hey, there's a huge market at TIFF. Let's hang our shingle here. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

How to schmooze at TIFF

Story & photos by Allan Tong

It's day 8 at TIFF, the Americans have left and, while the galas and screenings continue strong, the parties are over. That's left me to reflect on schmoozing. 

What's schmoozing? That's the art of making small talk to impress someone at a festival party without overtly pitching them or blowing smoke up their ass. Newbies fail miserably at this, and one must learn the nuances through painful trial-and-error. However, to get a head start here are 10 tips:

1) Dress the part. I love the Jays, but I sure as hell wouldn't wear a Jose Bautista jersey to a TIFF party (the exceptions being Kevin Smith and Spike Lee who can wear any damn sports jerseys they want). Who want to look like a schlub or homeless? 

Men, wear a dress jacket at the very least. Tie optional. Jeans are okay as long they are clean and ironed. Dress shoes preferred, but you can get away with running shoes because it's considered anti-authoritarian.

The gathering of the Canadian film tribe: the CFC BBQ

Story and photos by Allan Tong

"You going to the barbecue?"

If you're a Canadian at TIFF, you inevitably hear that question, followed by, "Did you get an invite?"

Held in the first Sunday afternoon of the festival, "the barbecue" is a gathering of the Canadian film tribe as well as a fundraiser for the Canadian Film Centre. It takes place on the manicured lawns of the CFC far north of the Lightbox but near the millionaire mansions of the Bridal Path. Given its distance and isolation, the barbecue is hard to crash and coveted.

If you're lucky enough to get in, you nibble on burgers, hot dogs and pizza and sip wine and beer that sponsors generously donate. But the real point is to show your face, shake hands and catch up with other Canadian filmmakers from various disciplines. Exchanging business cards is an essential ritual.

Each year, CFC founder Norman Jewison delivers a speech and this year under a sweltering sky, the venerable film director, wearing his "NJ" baseball cap, asked for a moment of silence on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Telefilm and Birks salute women at TIFF

Story and photos by Allan Tong
Sandra Oh

Last night at the posh Shangri-La Hotel in downtown Toronto, Telefilm Canada and jewelerer Birks feted a dozen women in Canadian film at the Birks Diamond Tribute. They included actresses Amanda Crew (Silicon Valley),Caroline Dhavernas (Hannibal) Christine Horne (Hyena Road),Sandra Oh (Grey's Anatomy, Window Horses) and Jennifer Podemski (Fire Song); directors Tracey Deer (Mohawk Girls),Ann Marie Fleming (Window Horses), April Mullen (Below Her Mouth, 88), Léa Pool (Set Me Free) and Ann Shin (My Enemy, My Brother); and, for the first time, screenwriters Emma Donoghue (Room) and Marie Vien (La passion d'Augustine).

What distinguishes this list of honourees this year from last is racial diversity. In 2015, the honoured women were all white, a point not lost on some attendees. Perhaps to rectify this imbalance (particularly in the year of #OscarsSoWhite), Telefilm has included Asians (Oh, Shin and Fleming) and First Nations (Podemski, Deer) in a profound way. 

Documentarian Shin feels she she has been "lucky" in getting her films made about Asian and black issues, but is about to make her first fictional film. "I hear it's tougher," she says. In particular, she feels it's hard to get Asian males on screen. "There's a bias."

Monday, September 12, 2016

Isabelle Huppert and the French shine at UniFrance, TIFF

Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne (directors, The Unknown Girl)
Story and photos by Allan Tong

Over the weekend, UniFrance celebrated France's directors, screenwriters and stars attending TIFF this year with their films. These include Paul Verhoeven's controversial Elle starring the legendary Isabelle Huppert, the Dardenne brothers' The Unknown Girl and renowned director, Agnes Varda who was in Toronto to receive an award named after the late, great film critic Roger Ebert.