Monday, August 8, 2022

film review: Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes

Directed by Mark James

Review by Allan Tong

ChinoKino score: A-

Peter Tosh, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Dennis Brown, Alton Ellis, Lord Creator and Bob Marley are some of the reggae greats who graced Studio 17 in downtown Kingston in the 1960s and 1970s. This fine British documentary spotlights this crucial chapter of reggae and Jamaican history. At its unlikely centre is a Chinese-Jamaican family, headed by matriarch "Miss Pat" Chin, her late husband Vincent, and his son, Clive. Vincent was nicknamed Randy which was also the name of the record store attached to the studio, just like legendary Stax Records in Memphis.

The Chins' story teems with charming anecdotes, near-fatal twists and tragedy. The Chins were one of many Chinese families who comprised the merchant class of Jamaica. The Chins started reselling ska 45s in the early 1960s, and soon expanded into recording musicians themselves. Legendary engineer Clive Thompson helped shape the clean, balanced sound of Studio 17 which attracted Jamaica's reggae artists. Business was good at Randy's and Studio 17, and their early success mirrored the optimism of newly independent Jamaica of the 1960s. Clive established a reputation as a top producer of danceable ska which morphed into harder-edged reggae to reflect the growing cynicism of Jamaicans by the late-1960s.

In Studio 17, Miss Pat and especially Clive guide the viewer through Studio 17's rise. They're augmented by reflections from reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, UB40's Ali Campbell and Dave Stewart formerly of the Eurythmics. They recall Peter Tosh as a spiritual man who smoked the sacrament of ganja everywhere, including a Pan Am flight to New York; and of Bob Marley covering the bubblegum anthem, Sugar Sugar (quite well, actually). Clive recalls narrowly missing the assassination attempt on Marley during a violent national election. That political unrest and the threat of Communism forced the Chins and other Chinese-Jamaican merchants to flee the island in 1978. Clive and Miss Pat literally left everything behind, including the library of tapes recorded at Studio 17.

Though Clive later moved the tapes to his new home and record store in Queens, New York, it took a murder in the Chin family years later to convince Clive to digitize the aging reel-to-reels and release select collections to the public. Miraculously, the tapes survived. This includes an unfinished demo by Dennis Brown. A few years ago, Clive enlisted teen British singer, Hollie Stephenson, to add a new vocal which turned that demo into a sparkling duet that Dave Stewart co-produced. That is a wonderful sequence in the film. Another great story is of UB40 rescuing Lord Creator from poverty by covering his ballad, Kingston Town, in 1989.

The story of the Chins and Studio 17 is so entertaining that it compensates for the film's only flaw. Reshma B is a London journalist who interviews the subjects and sometimes pops up on camera. This is distracting and unnecessary. Making things more confusing is that someone else is narrating the film. Just who is telling this story? Luckily, the film keeps circling back to the Chins to restore its focus.

Studio 17 fills a hole in the history of reggae. It offers captivating viewing for lovers of reggae, Jamaica and cinematic storytelling.

Studio 17 will screen on August 10 in Montreal, August 14 in Ottawa and August 15 in Toronto. Check local listings for details.

Friday, July 15, 2022

art review: In The Wake of Progress

Directed and photographed by Edward Burtynsky

ChinoKino score: A-

Review by Allan Tong

Edward Burtynsky's giant photographs of strip mines, garbage dumps and high-rise jungles warn us of environmental catastrophe. His trademark images are so large, detailed and in-your-face that the message of humanity's impact on the environment being unsustainable is unmistakable. It makes sense that many of his images shot over 40 years now make the transition to a cinematic experience, called In The Wake of Progress, presented by Toronto's Luminato Festival.

The multimedia exhibit, located by the Canadian Opera Company in downtown Toronto, and running only June 25-July 17, consists of three parts and requires roughly an hour to absorb. Nearly half of this experience starts with a slideshow of images shown on three 30-foot screens accompanied by powerful, abstract music co-produced by Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, Aerosmith), composed by Phil Strong, and performed by the Glen Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music and Cree-metis vocalist iskwe. Think Koyaanisqatsi bursting through a powerful sound system that leaves the floor trembling. This presentation is stunning and is the core of this exhibit.

Next, the audience views several photos in a traditional gallery setting. The images differ from the in the AV presentation but strike the same theme of environmental damage shot from places as diverse as Arizona, Turkey, Australia and Madagascar (above).

film review: Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Song, A Journey


Directed by Dan Geller & Dayna Goldfine

ChinoKino score: A-

Review by Allan Tong

There are many songs, but only a few become hits, and one or two endure as anthems. Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah is an unlikely anthem. This captivating new documentary charts the song's unlikely path to immortality and details its creator's lifelong conflict between sex and spirituality that birthed Hallelujah.

That birth nearly didn't happen. The 1984 album that Hallelujah appeared on, Various Positions, wasn't good enough to be sold in the United States. That was the verdict of Columbia Records' chief, Walter Yetnikoff who explained to the poet-singer: "Leonard, we know you're great, but don't know if you're any good." The album eventually surfaced on a smaller label in the U.S. and Hallelujah would find its way into Bob Dylan's set list. More importantly, John Cale, the co-founder of the legendary Velvet Underground, covered it in a plaintive, yet moving version on the 1991 tribute album, I'm Your Fan.

Cale's versions reached some important ears. Another hero of this story is Jeff Buckley who covered Hallelujah in the only album recorded in his short life. With his angelic voice and moving delivery, Buckley's version inspired countless other musicians, including U2, who popularized Hallelujah even further. Then, an unlikely appearance of Cale's cover in the hit animated film, Shrek, made Hallelujah mega. From there on, Cohen's song about tortured love illustrated with Biblical imagery appeared on countless singing TV contests, weddings and funerals.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

The Prism Prize returns in person

by Allan Tong

The Prism Prize for Canadian music videos returned to a live audience at the TIFF Bell Lightbox last week in downtown Toronto after two years of virtual presentations during the pandemic. Ali, performed and directed by Mustafa, took home the $20,000 grand prize after 130 jurors named it the best among a strong field of ten videos. The audience award went to Khanvict and director Anjali Nayar for Closer. A full list of winners and the videos themselves can be found here.

It's the tenth year of the Prism Prize, which recognizes the achievements of emerging music video directors and musicians. This year's nominees for top prize included The Beaches for Blow Up, Chad VanGaalen's Samurai Sword which should take a prize for the most memorable animation, and two by BABBADNOTGOOD, Love Proceeding and Timid, Intimidating for its smart jazz-rock fusion standing apart from the other nominees' hip hop and rock.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

film review: Dreaming Walls: Inside The Chelsea Hotel


Directed by Maya Duverdier & Amélie van Elmbt

ChinoKino score: B

Reviewed by Allan Tong

You may have heard of the Chelsea Hotel. It's that Gothic hotel-apartment that towers over 23rd street in Manhattan where artists of all stripes have stayed for days or years. Musicians like Maria Callas and Jimi Hendrix loved it for its thick walls and soundproof rooms. Arthur C. Clarke wrote the screenplay to 2001 here. Bob Dylan composed Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands here. Andy Warhol shot a film here in the mid-1960s. Leonard Cohen memorialized his stay in song,and Patti Smith wrote here. One or two Ramones resided here. Painters and sculptors of all styles call this home. In the past, they used to pay their rent with paintings that adorned the lobby.

Those walls are being renovated now as artistes are leaving. This documentary chronicles this transition as new owners spend years and millions of dollars upgrading this shabby-chic grand dame. New York teems with hotels but none is like the Chelsea. There's a lot of controversy and confusion surrounding this massive facelift. Unfortunately, Dreaming Walls doesn't clarify that. The viewer has to read that online, preferably, or track down earlier films. And there lies the double-edge sword in chronicling this famous refuge.


Instead, this documentary follows several long-term tenants, who continue to create as they navigate workmen hammering, upgrading and rewiring their hallways, floors and ceilings. Many tenants are old and frail. You wonder how long they can stay at the Chelsea and where they will go next.

Tenants allude to former manager, Stanley Bard, a legendary figure and gracious man who accepted paintings in lieu of cash to pay the rent. It's a pity that the film doesn't shine a light on Mr. Bard. When I stayed at the Chelsea 25 years ago, I had the pleasure of talking to him at length. He was patient and considerate. He respected his tenants' privacy--which was why folks like Janis and Jimi crashed here. 

I'm of two minds about Dreaming Walls. I come to the film knowing the history of the Chelsea, so I could appreciate the intimate profiles of these longtime tenants. They don't want to leave, and I understand. The filmmakers treat the Chelsea with reverence and respect. I also get that. However, those who have never heard of the Chelsea may be left scratching their heads. Why is this place so important? True, past documentaries and books have chronicled the history of the Chelsea, so why recycle that? Then again, a little more historic context would have filled in blanks for less-knowing viewers.

Distributed by Mongrel Media, beginning July 8.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

ICFF film reviews: The Treadmill & On Our Watch


The Treadmill (Tapirulàn)

Directed by Claudia Gerini

Written by Fabio Morici with Claudia Gerini and Antonio Baioccio (story)

ChinoKino score: A-


On Our Watch (E Noi Come Stronzi Rimanemmo A Guardare)

Directed by  Pif

Written by Michele Astori & Pif

ChinoKino score: B 

The Italian Contemporary Film Festival returns to Toronto's big screens in 2022 following an absence during the pandemic. The ICFF coped well by offering a fine selection of drive-in movies, but this year returns to the cinema proper as well as to home computer in a hybrid model. Directly and indirectly influenced by the pandemic, two of the best films involve technology, The Treadmill and On Our Watch.

The Treadmill stars Italian's renown Claudia Gerini who also directed and co-wrote. She plays a therapist named Emma who treats "clients" via videophone (a la Zoom) while she runs on a jogging machine. Why? It's good for her body and mind. 


She offers comfort to a depressed artist, persuades an abused wife to flee her abusive husband and helps a teenage boy accept his homosexuality despite living in a strict Catholic family. She listens and empathizes, even when a suicidal man insults her. Here, technology bridges patient with therapist, but therapist also uses technology to distance herself from others.

Emma herself reveals her own vulnerabilities when a long-lost sister tracks her down and begs her to see their dying father. Emma shuts her down and wants nothing to do with that man. Emma resumes jogging on her treadmill, but she can't flee anywhere.

Though a lot of the action on screen happens in Emma's condo, The Treadmill keeps moving and never feels stuck. The audience sticks with Emma from the first frame and follows her as she treats her client-patients as well as heal her own family rift. Gerini portrays Emma with natural ease, offering her character complexity and authenticity. All supporting characters are fleshed out and feel real. Gerini carries the film, which she scripted with writer Fabio Morici and Antonio Baioccio who conceived the story. The Treadmill is superb and marks a fine directorial debut by star Gerini.

On Our Watch takes a lighter, slightly comedic view of technology through Arturo, a mid-manager at a company who unsuspectingly introduces the algorithm which renders him redundant. Overnight, Arturo loses his job and girlfriend, and resorts to delivering food on his bike at a tech behemoth called FUUBER. Think Uber Eats and Foodora, but also Facebook, Google and Amazon all rolled into one suffocating megatech that tracks its users' lives across the internet. 

Wisely, Fabio De Luigi plays Arturo deadpan. The satire is already in the script on screen and director Pif controls the comedy to avoid it tipping into silliness. There is no shortage of mayhem. Anything that can go wrong for Arturo delivering food, goes badly. He pays FUUBER for a virtual girlfriend, rents a room to a real-life roommate who has his own digital problems, and keeps getting penalized at his job. He can't catch a break in this digital world. Eventually, Arturo gets fed up with FUUBER enslaving him, and crosses the ocean to find the real woman behind his virtual girlfriend.

In doing so, Arturo rips the mask off FUUBER and exposes its totalitarian grip on him and countless others. The end of the film takes a jarring dramatic turn and suffers from preachiness, but this is foregivable. On Our Watch is a witty, observant warning of the perils of digital privacy.


Monday, June 27, 2022

film review: Ennio



Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore

ChinoKino score:A

Review by Allan Tong

If you don't know the name Ennio Morricone, you have heard his music in films such as Malena, The Mission, In The Line of Fire, The Untouchables, Days of Heaven, Once Upon A Time In America, and the one that launched him internationally, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The Italian trumpeter and classical composer scored over 400 films in his 91 years and is considered the greatest. Morricone collaborated with director Giuseppe Tornatore on 1988's Cinema Paradiso, which was was a Valentine to cinema. So is Ennio, which Tornatore made as an obvious tribute to Morricone. The result is an essential documentary about the Maestro and the mysterious, but powerful art of creating music for film.


The strength and structure of Ennio lies in the subject itself who freely shares his life story from his childhood in Rome. Morricone wanted to be a doctor, but his father ordered him to take up the trumpet like he did in order to feed his family. Hungry years inevitably dawned, which did not satisfy the young trumpeter. Morricone studied classical composing which was unusual for a trumpet player. Versed in Verdi and Mozart, of course, Morricone surprisingly admired avant-garde musician John Cage who was infamous for making music out of ordinary sounds. Morricone's gift for melody, his classical training and his affection for experimentalism gradually made its way onto Italian, TV then film.