Wednesday, December 8, 2021

film review: Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road


Directed by Brent Wilson

ChinoKino score: B+

Review by Allan Tong

Five minutes into this new documentary about Brian Wilson, I thought, Oh, no, not another Brian bio. The opening sings the praises of the genius behind the 1966 masterpiece, Pet Sounds, how his songs fueled The Beach Boys' rise to stardom, and he has forever left his mark on popular music. As a Brian fan, sure, I agree with all that, but I've also heard this before in other docs.

Then, Long Promised Road takes viewers on a different ride. Literally. The rise is with Brian and longtime friend Jason Fine who get in a car and drive to Brian's old haunts around Los Angeles as they spin tunes by the Beach Boys (as a group and individually), and Brian reminisces. This is the key to the film where Brian opens up about his troubled family, marriage, career, and personal and legal battles. Now, this is new. The film captures the shy Brian unguarded through a camera resting unobtrusively on the car's dashboard. Fine first met Brian as a journalist profiling the musician for Rolling Stone magazine, and they've remained buddies ever since. Fine gently coaxes unfiltered thoughts and reactions out of Brian that will surprise casual and hardcore fans alike.

The ride covers the usual bases, starting with Brian's abusive father. The film excerpts an infamous 1965 studio clash between (drunk, belligerent) father and son during the recording of Help Me, Rhonda and stops outside his childhood home. Here, a wall sculpture now honours his band. The ride takes him to his old luxury home, where folks like Sly Stone dropped in (and passed out after getting stoned). The ride goes to more innocent places, like Paradise Cove where the Beach Boys posed for the cover of their first album (a plaque now marks the spot). Through it all, Brian makes unguarded reflections, great and small, about his career highs, disappointments, battles with mental illness, drug use, and his love for his brothers. These are simply the highlights of this film.

The most revealing moment comes when Fine informs Brian that former Beach Boys' manager, Jack Rieley died a few years ago. Brian is speechless, stunned, and tears well in his eyes as he processes the stunning news. After some heavy pauses, Brian announces that his heart is broken--and we feel for him.

Unnecessarily, the film cuts away to Brian's famous admirers (Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Linda Perry, Taylor Hawkins, Don Was) to tell us how great Brian's music is. This interrupts the flow of Brian's ride and adds little to our overall understanding of him. Granted, these stars say nothing inaccurate, and it's a thrill to hear Sir Elton recall going ga-ga over his idol when they met in the 1970's.

Another issue with the film is that it meanders, also jumping back to Brian rehearsing and performing with his current band. I get it: Brian remains an active, creative artist to this day, but again these jumps break up the film's overall flow and don't build up to anything.

However, vintage film clips are chosen well. One interesting clip is an early interview with the young Beach Boys where brother Dennis flirts with a female interviewer. This nicely detours into a sequence centering on the handsome bad boy, and Brian explains how close they were. Cocaine was one bond, but it went deeper than that. One commentator points out that playboy Dennis and introverted Brian secretly envied each other, though the film glosses over Dennis' battles with addiction which eventually killed him at age 39.

Finally, the film deserves credit for exploring the theme of mental illness with sensitivity. Brian has long suffered from schizoaffective disorder, in which he hears bad voices in his head and wrestles with periodic depression. A link between his father's abuse (mental as well as physical) is strongly implied. This disorder to is stated at the start of this film and colours everything we then see. Brian's condition led to disgraced therapist Eugene Landy taking over Brian's life and even career in the 1970's through the early 1990's, until Brian successfully sued him. Landy (who died in 2006) is seen only in still photos, thankfully.

In the end, you admire Brian for surviving his long, hellish journey to somehow keep making music while also raising five adopted children. (We briefly see his two daughters from his first marriage.) Director Wilson (no relation to Brian) indeed takes us on a journey through the wonderful, harrowing and unique life of a special musician.

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road is now available on VOD.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

film review: The Beatles: Get Back (sneak preview)


Directed by Peter Jackson

ChinoKino score: B+

Review by Allan Tong

Delayed by the Covid pandemic for 18 months, and hidden by the band itself for decades since its 1970 theatrical release, the very-long-awaited Let It Be film finally sees the light of day this American Thanksgiving weekend. However, tonight in Toronto, a 100-minute sneak preview of the new eight-hour, three-part docuseries that will stream exclusively on Disney+ on November 25-27 was shown at the TIFF Lightbox cinema #1, one of the classiest movie houses in the city.

This is, in fact, not the 1970 film directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, but re-imagined by Peter Jackson. His reinterpretation is based on 60 hours of 16mm film footage and 150 hours of audio tape that's been restored and enhanced into eight hours. The preview revealed 100 minutes.

It starts with Jackson cradling a Hofner bass and telling the camera how he felt unsure at first about tackling this massive project. Let It Be, he says in so many words, is The Beatles' epitaph, long known as a depressing diary of the band's final days. However, he changed his mind when he began watching the original footage which he discovered dispelled this myth. We see him walk through an underground labyrinth and into a vault containing rolls of the original film canisters, which would make any Beatles' freak drool.

Jackson then explains how technology plays a big role in his film. He demonstrates on the big screen how machine learning or artificial intelligence teased apart a mono track into multi-track audio. In other words, he shows us the Beatles jamming with all the instruments and vocals lumped into a single, sludgy mono track, then he plays only the lead guitar in isolation, then Paul's bass by itself, then Ringo's drums alone, then the vocals. If you've never heard this, it is incredible.

Another breathtaking moment happens when the original grainy, dirty 4x3 film bursts into gorgeous, widescreen imagery. The colours explode and the screen bursts with stunning visual detail. The Beatles come alive before our eyes.

Jackson then introduces a montage, running roughly five minutes culled from the eight-hour series. The tone is overwhelmingly cheerful as the Beatles joke and jam, clearly challenging the long-held epitaph myth about Get Back/Let It Be that Paul McCartney himself has described as "the most miserable sessions on Earth." (More on this later.) The montage feels like a long promo, but at least we see and hear the digitally scrubbed footage on the big screen--and it is stunning.

Jackson then introduces most or all of the filmed session of January 27, 1969 that took place in the basement of the Apple office at 3 Saville Row. What Jackson doesn't mention (perhaps the finished film does) is that the Beatles were miserable filming in the grim Twickenham Film Studios earlier that month, and were delighted to locate to the cosy Apple basement where a studio was hastily constructed. Also enlivening the mood was the presence of an old friend from the Beatles' Hamburg days, keyboardist Billy Preston whom George invited. The jovial Preston lifted everyone's mood which is clearly seen in this footage. This section runs roughly half an hour.

What follows is the jewel in the crown of the original Let It Be and likely Jackson's cut: the rooftop concert. I don't need to introduce. All I will do is applaud Jackson for employing split-screen footage to capture the reaction of the startled/delighted/grumpy crowd in the streets below, the various Beatles onstage having a great time performing live for the first time in three years, and the police who eventually end the show. Jackson does a fantastic job intercutting the footage shot on the street, in the Apple lobby (through a hidden camera), from a rooftop across Apple, and from various angles on the rooftop to create a thrilling sequence. This sequence puts you on the rooftop (at least on the big screen). The audio, remixed by Giles Martin (who did a superb job with the Beatles' box sets starting with Sgt. Pepper) leaps out of the screen. The bass and drums are muscular. The Beatles kick ass on the rooftop.

All in all, the 100-minute preview was a pleasure to watch and hear on the big screen. However, I wonder how Jackson will handle the Twickenham sessions where the Beatles looked glum, John was strung out on smack, George rows with Paul, and apathy gripped the band as Paul sadly tried to rouse his bandmates into another take of Two of Us. 

Disney+ subscribers will know soon enough, starting Thursday when the streaming service premieres part one of the docuseries; Friday will unveil part two, then part three, including the rooftop concert, will be shown Saturday. Remember: this is one part per day. After that, you got to pay extra to see it. It's rumoured that the Blu-ray/DVD set will come out in the new year.

Beatles' fans will be thankful this year, but I will be eager to see if Jackson whitewashes the "most miserable sessions on Earth" or reveals fresh truths of the most controversial, but hidden, chapter of the Beatles' legend.

The Beatles: Get Back docuseries streams exclusively on Disney+ starting November 25, 2021.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

film review: Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free: The Making of Wildflowers


Directed by Mary Wharton

ChinoKino score: B

Review by Allan Tong

This new documentary unearths the sessions of Tom Petty's Wildflowers album, based on 16mm footage shot by a friend in 1993-5. It amounts to a tribute rather than an exploration of the late musician, told with care and respect, though offering few revelations. Petty fans will revel in seeing him recording in the studio and discussing his songwriting craft. Occasionally, the normally personal Petty opens up. This is significant, since Petty was a guarded individual though apropos here, because Wildflowers was one of his most reflective, personal statements. Hence, this is a canny choice of a period in the artist's life to spotlight.

The film is largely seen in black-and-white, and intercuts to concert footage, say at the Hollywood Bowl, or to an interview in colour. The B&W apporach casts the film in the past. Remembrances abound, mostly laudatory which is frustrating for the viewer. However, patience leads Petty to eventually admit that Wildflowers was about his troubled marriage, but even here he says it was unconsciously done. Petty's daughter disagrees; she insists this album declared her father's feelings more than other statement. She also admits that her dad was going through therapy at the time.

Rick Rubin weighs in on the actual recording. He enters the story explaining that he found Petty too "melodic" until Full Moon Fever, a global smash that (ironically) yielded several radio-friendly hits. Petty admits that he never officially hired Rubin who, instead, was simply there offering feedback on a regular basis. Rubin chimes in that his hip-hop background influenced the rhythm of the hit, You Don't Know How It Feels. He also lauds Ringo Starr's guest drumming for its presence. Also getting a nod was Mary Jane's Last Dance that Petty quickly wrote and recorded to fill a greatest hits collection. Not bad for a knock-off.

Aside from Petty and his daughter, past band members like Mike Campbell and producer Rick Rubin chime in. The latter confesses that he found Petty and the Heartbreakers too melodic until Full Moon Fever, Petty's worldwide hit album that ironically featured pop hits like Free Fallin'. Song excerpts are illustrated by effective animation. Overall, the film flows well and gently guides the viewer through the making of Wildflowers. It doesn't dive too deeply, though. After all, we don't hear much about the troubled marriage after the initial mention though that friction fuelled the heart of the album. However, this film is the closest that fans and viewers so far have gotten of Tom Petty. Thankfully, Somewhere You Feel Free, honours what is perhaps the most important work by this beloved rock 'n' roll musician.

Somewhere You Feel Free premieres in selected theatres for a limited engagement across Canada, starting October 20.

Friday, May 7, 2021

film review: Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street


Directed by Marilyn Agrelo

ChinoKino score: A

Review by Allan Tong

Chances are you grew up watching Sesame Street and/or your children watch it now. Its blend of entertainment and education charms pre-schoolers into teaching them the alphabet and counting, and yet is smart enough to entice grown-ups. Sesame Street deserves to be a global phenomenon for the last 52 years and 4,561 episodes (and counting), and this superb documentary explains how this happen.

Circle back to the late-1960s when a TV producer named Joan Ganz Cooney and a Carnegie Foundation exec and psychologist, Lloyd Morrisset, were alarmed that children, especially Black ghetto kids, knew how to sing beer commercials before they could recite the alphabet. Why not use the power of TV to educate? That was a revolutionary idea, but also a gamble. Ganz gave free reign to free-spirited creatives, who were riding the experimental vibe of the sixties. They were led by director Jon Stone and puppeteer Jim Henson.

Stone was disillusioned with TV, but like Cooney was an activist and understood her vision for this show. Stone saw a PSA shot in the streets of Harlem and decided to set the series on those stoops, which gave the show an identity light years from any previous children's show. Going further, the show featured a multiracial cast of Blacks, Latinos and whites that was revolutionary for its time and (sadly) decades to come. Stone's masterstroke was inviting Henson to come on board. Actually, Henson had only done puppetry for adults on TV, but was game to adjust for children.

Throw in a mix of dazzling animation, Big Bird and hip musical guests from Stevie Wonder to Johnny Cash, and Sesame Street became an instant smash. Even folks like Muhammad Ali were signing its praises.

Monday, May 3, 2021

film review: Chinatown Rising


Directed by Harry Chuck & Josh Chuck

ChinoKino score: A

Review by Allan Tong

Though it was completed before Covid struck, Chinatown Rising couldn't be more timely. Racist attacks against Asians, particularly those of Chinese descent, have erupted across the United States and Canada. Asians are being scapegoated for the pandemic, but Asians are now fighting back, and they can draw inspiration from the earlier generation, depicted in this riveting documentary.

Co-director Harry Chuck was a film student and community activist in the turbulent 1960s. He was part of that generation that grew up after the Chinese Exclusion Act and were no longer afraid of keeping quiet. This younger generation was inspired by the Black Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. Their turning point came in 1965, when the U.S. liberalized immigration policies and many more Chinese were allowed into the country (the Exclusion Act had forbidden it). In 1969, the activists demanded a school at the San Francisco State College to teach the contribution of the Chinese community. Also, they wanted Chinese to be used in classrooms in order to teach younger immigrant kids. They clashed with the Six Companies, a group of Chinatown elders whom they felt were out of touch and ineffectual.

The activists demonstrated in the streets, sometimes battling the police, and they fought city hall. Victories came, but not easily. The activists also worked hands-on within the community, particularly to stem the rise of street gangs, fed by kids who didn't assimilate and turned to crime. Tragically, they likely killed the head of the Youth Services Center, Barry Fong-Torres (brother of celebrated Rolling Stone magazine writer Ben Fong-Torres). Also in the 1970s, activists demanded better housing for the elderly and young families. Thankfully, Chuck captured these squalid conditions on camera which were presented at a rancorous city hall debate.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

film review: The End of the Storm



Directed by James Erskine

Written by James Erskine

ChinoKino score: D

Review by Allan Tong

The End of the Storm plays like one of those glossy mini-hagiographies that sports networks run during intermissions to keep hometown fans cheering between halves and periods. The big difference is that End of the Storm runs for 99 agonizing minutes and hypes the entire Liverpool football club who topped the Premier League in 2019-20. 

I'm not slagging Liverpool FC at all. They're a great team. Legends. But this documentary is such an obvious exercise in corporate P.R. that I get no sense of what it's really like for them to compete in the top football (soccer) league on the planet. Pro football is big business, where coaches are turfed when their team slides or players are hounded by fans when they slump. The pressure is enormous, the egos are explosive and the fan expectations unrealistic. You get none of that in this film.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

What to watch this week: Pelé, Tokyo Girl, Creem magazine


Tokyo Girl

reviews by Allan Tong 

TOKYO GIRL (on Prime)

ChinoKino score: A

Tokyo Girl would kick Emily in Paris' ass in a Superbowl game.

Tokyo Girl is a Prime series about a smalltown girl who finds her dreams working in fashion in the big city, while Emily in Paris, the Netflix hit, follows a Chicago girl who trimphs in the European culture capital through her Instagram account. Both heroines are fishes out of water, bore wear gorgeous clothes and they dine in dazzling restaurants with lovers and backstabbing colleagues.

After watching Emily in Paris, I remember gorgeous Paris and posh clothes. After watching Tokyo Girl I remember work triumphs, everyday struggles and broken relationships. I remember watching a real person mature.

This comparison, I admit, can go only so far. Emily is told in real time while Tokyo Girl spans nearly 20 years in the heroine's life. Also, Emily is lighter while TG mixes drama with laughs.

Both shows are helmed by strong actresses, though. Emily takes a lot slagging for being an American philistine, but Lily Collins nails the role. Collins injects her character with unexpected vulnerability at times. (A shout-out goes to Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu who nails Emily's bitch boss.) Asami Mizukawa (pictured above) has a tougher gig in Tokyo Girl, portraying how smalltown girl Aya turns into career woman Aya by age 40, when she wonders what th hell she'll do next with her life. Mizukawa pulls it off.

TG's writing is tougher, smarter and more complex. Guys need to watch this show to understand women better. Emily, in contrast, overdoses on gee-whiz sweetness that would kill a diabetic. But, hey, Paris, is dazzling.

The call: Tokyo Girl by 14 points.


PELÉ (on Netflix)

ChinoKino score: B

Before Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, there was Pelé. This kid from the slums of Sao Paulo shot to football (soccer) superstardom and put Brazil atop the football map. This doc covers the meat of his career, playing for Santos and leading Brazil to three World Cups, from 1958 to 1970.

Those years were a hell of a ride that lifted Brazilian national pride and made Pelé a rock star. Goals, goals, goals. There's an endless stream of Pelé making acrobatic moves on the football pitch, drawn from vintage black-and-white footage and grainy colour. This doc is thrilling to watch, and captures a lot of Pelé's former teammates and coaches on camera recounting their victories and struggles.

Pelé himself, now 80, tells a lot of his story. He needs a walker these days, undoubtedly a result of many years of taking cheap shots from less-talented opponents. Yet, he still speaks with a sparkle in his eye. All great. However, the issue of him never opposing Brazil's dictator, who imprisoned and murdered his countrymen from 1964 to 1985, is thorny. Credit this film for including Pelé's critics as as well as offering Pelé's own justification for keeping his nose out of politics. Maybe we expect too much from our athletic heroes (Jordan and Gretzky were also apolitical, not Ali), but I winced when Pelé hugs the country's butcher after the 1970 World Cup victory.

Friday, February 19, 2021

What to watch tonight on Netflix, Prime & Crave


reviews by Allan Tong 


THE CROWN (on Netflix)

ChinoKino score: A+

A dramatic series about a rich English family who live in big houses with servants, and they can't stand each other's spouses. The Crown covers the second half of Britain's 20th century and the latest season explores the slick, big-shouldered 1980s. This season (arguably the best) features a powerful woman named Thatcher (brilliantly played by that redhead from X-Files, Gillian Anderson) who bosses a lot of wimpy men around, even though she herself doesn't like women. Thatcher must be a cokehead, because she perpetually speaks as if she has something stuck up her nose.

Meanwhile, the rich family is thoroughly miserable, though they live in really nice palace and millions of people love them, especially the blonde princess, Diana.

The show hits a grand slam in every department: writing, acting, directing. By now, everyone on the planet including the Pope has seen The Crown, so if you haven't, what are you waiting for?

FLACK (on Prime)

ChinoKino score: A-

Canadian Anna Paquin, heads a quartet of spin doctors (Latin for bullshit) in London who rescue their showbiz clients from all kinds of emergencies they get themselves into, whether it's obnoxious behaviour on a transatlantic fight, faking a lesbian sex tape, or a gay hooker OD'ing in a hotel room. The irony is that Robyn is a bigger screw-up than all her clients while her colleagues are no better.

Friday, February 12, 2021

film review: Supernova


Directed by Harry Macqueen

Written by Harry Macqueen

ChinoKino score: B+

Review by Allan Tong

The hard reality is that dementia is increasing as our population ages. Supernova addresses how one couple deals with this terrible disease. Specifically, dementia corrodes the memory of older people. They forget where they are, who they are and who they love. Even buttoning a shirt becomes confusing. It can take a few years or many to attack a person. In Supernova, Tusker (Stanley Tucci) was diagnosed a few years ago, so his dementia is in the early innings. Most of the time Tusker knows where he is and who can recognize his lover, Sam (Colin Firth). However, unexpectedly Tusker forgets everything, which can be dangerous. He can literally wander into harm.

In a trailer home, Tusker and Sam journey through England's gorgeous Lake District to relive happy times they spent there. They also visit Sam's childhood home where his sister now lives. She's a safe harbour in a stormy time. The couple want to enjoy this experience together while Tusker still can.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

film review: Falling


Directed by Viggo Mortensen

Written by Viggo Mortensen

ChinoKino score: C

Review by Allan Tong

Falling marks the directorial debut of Canadian award-winning actor Viggo Mortensen. The death of Mortensen's mother inspired him to reflect on his parents' divorce and led to him to write this story. How much of this film is autobiographical is unclear, but Falling centres on a fraught father-son relationship as the father searches for a new home and struggles with his health. Mortensen performs triple duty by playing son John, who lives in Los Angeles with his husband Eric (Terry Chen) and their adopted daughter. They take in the old man.

The father is Willis (Lance Henriksen) who is frankly a homophobic, nasty old man. He is suffering the early stages of dementia, which makes John's burden even heavier. Unsurprisingly, Willis attacks his son's homosexuality relentless, even as John feeds and shelters him. John's family restrains itself and doesn't fight back. They just grin and bear it.