Thursday, April 4, 2024

film review: Wicked Little Letters


Directed by Thea Sharrock

Written by Jonny Sweet

ChinoKino review: C

Reviewed by Allan Tong

In 1919, in the English seaside town of Littlehampton, two neighbours, Edith Swann and Rose Gooding, ceased being friends when Edith reported Rose to the authorities after Edith and other members of Littlehampton received poison pen letters full of threats and obscenities, including the C-Word. In Thea Sharrock's film treatement, co-scripted by Jonnny Sweet, Edith is prim and proper, upholding the values of early-20th-century England, while Rose is the free-spirited and feisty Irish immigrant. If the two were men, then no scandal or police investigation would have erupted. After all, it was fine for men to curse, at least in letters, but, oh dear, not women.

Though performances by leads Olivia Colman (as Edith), one of the Britain's top actors, and Jessie Buckley (Rose) are strong, their characters are thin and one-dimensional. I never got to understand them nor did I care to. Another problem with this film is the approach to race. Rose's lover is a Black man and Police Officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) is of South Asian decent. I don't know if these two are based on real-life characters, but racism was rife in 1919 England and yet race is never mentioned in the film. Instead, sexism is placed front and centre.


Look, I'm all for racial diversity in films, including the ones I have made and the many I have programmed for festivals, but this casting doesn't work in this context. Sharrock has applied 2023 mores onto a 1919 setting, and the juxtaposition just confuses the viewer. The non-white characters are elephants in the proverbial room and amounts to awkward storytelling.

A final flaw with Wicked Little Letters is tone. This is supposed to be a black comedy, but it's played for broad laughs and few of the jokes land. Instead, all the white guys, including the cops (except Moss) are sexist buffoons, Rose is party animal and Edith is uptight. Their dialogue lacks wit, lacks bite. The two leads never feel like close friends to start the story, so there's no sense of loss when they fall out. Moreover, the scandal over the foul language doesn't translate to audiences. So what? What's the big deal? Some bad language in letters. Shrug. Sharrock doesn't establish the milieu where these letters are shocking to the public.

In the end, Wicked Little Letters is a big misfire, led by good intentions, but misapplied in an historic story that fails to condemn sexism.

Wicked Little Letters opens April 5 in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and expands to other cities on April 12.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

film review: They Shot The Piano Player


Directed by Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal

Written by Fernando Trueba

Review by Allan Tong

ChinoKino score: B+

This is a stunning, but flawed animated docu-drama about legendary Brazilian jazz pianist, Francisco Tenório Jr. who disappeared in 1976 after a gig. He was 34. You probably never heard of him, but Tenório Jr. he played a role in elevating bossa nova to world status in the 1960s and 1970s.

Part detective story and part history lesson about this wonderful music but also the totalitarianism that strangled South America, They Shot The Piano Player is told from the point of view of a writer. New Yorker Jeff Harris is researching a book about boss nova when he stumbles upon Tenório Jr.s' masterful playing and is hooked. He proceeds to interview the pianist's close friends, bandmates and family in and around Rio de Janeiro as well as Buenos Aires where Tenório disappeared. 

These include bossa nova's godfather, João Gilberto, as well as Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Vincius de Moraes and Paulo Moura. Their music is liberally heard throughout the film in dazzling, colourful sequences. Pure pleasure. Altogether, they tell the story about boss nova's rise until it broke internationally through in 1964, even challenging the Beatles on the charts.

Harris spends equal time, if not more, learning about the U.S.-backed military regimes which terrorized Brazil and Argentina in the 1970s. Credit the film for not pulling any punches. A harrowing sequence finds Harris touring Buenos Aires' ESMA (Navy Mechanics School), a notorious place in the 1970s where political prisoners (mostly innocent) were tortured and execute. Appalling, ESMA had a ward for pregnant prisoners.

A sequence involving jazz great Ella Fitzgerald is a highlight

Eventually, Harris solves the mystery of Tenório Jr.'s disappearance. The problem is that this moment is not a revelation. The audience has a good idea of what happened long before the ending, which is a key flaw in this film. It lacks suspense. Perhaps the directors got too close to the subject, but the film could have been more powerful after another edit to shuffle scenes and gradually build to this reveal.

Another concern, though not a dealbreaker, is why the filmmakers created the Harris character to tell this story. Was it necessary?

That said, this is a highly enjoyable film of a worthy subject.

They Shot The Piano Player opens March 15 in Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City; March 22 in Ottawa, Saskatoon and Victoria; then throughout the spring in other cities.

Monday, February 5, 2024

film review: Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer

Directed and written by Thomas von Steinaecker

ChinoKino score: A-

Review by Allan Tong

With Werner Herzog, warns German filmmaker Wim Wenders, "you can't be sure of anything. It's all unpredictable. You only know something will happen."

That something could be a dwarf rebellion, a doomed conquistador, Herzog eating his shoe onstage, or doing a guest spot in Star Wars. Great or disappointing, Werner Herzog's films are always interesting and unique. He follows neither formula nor agenda. This documentary makes that clear as it explores his life and career. It is worth watching.

Herzog guides us through his life, appearing on camera in L.A, his current home, and in Sachrang. His mother fled wartime bombing in Munich and sheltered Herzog and his brother in this remote Bavarian village. He grew up starving in the dying days of World War Two. Herzog points to a waterfall and declares that is him, his soul and identity. Seeing his old home makes him (and the viewer) emotional. He visits a ski jump and says he always wanted to fly. His brother recalls him breaking a few bones doing so.

Never mind. Herzog always shrugs off pain. He nearly died making two films in the jungle--Aguirre: Wrath of God (one of the greatest movies ever made) and Fitzcarraldo. The subject matter of his work spans an ocean, but a common thread is the obsession of a single character pursuing a dream at any cost. For instance, Fitzcarraldo is a rubber baron who drags a massive steamship uphill and across land so he can access rubber of the Amazon forest. This is a perfect metaphor about Herzog making this difficult film that he recast and postponed several times.

Of course, no discussion of Herzog is complete without Klaus Kinski. Intense, psychotic (and now discredited for abusing his daughters), Kinski was Herzog's leading madman, starring in Herzog's greatest fiction films, including the two made in the jungle. A lot has been said about their violent collaboration (watch Herzog's own doc, My Best Fiend), though Radical Dreamer does a good job of summarizing it.

Friends and collaborators lend additional voices to this documentary, including Volker Schlondorff (part of the 1960s German New Wave with Herzog), wives Lena Herzog (below) and Martje Grohmann, filmmakers Chloe Zhao and Joshua Oppenheimer, stars Nicole Kidman, Christian Bale and Carl Weathers (RIP), and fangirl and poet Patti Smith.

There's generous footage of Herzog on camera, accompanied by clips from his films, plus gorgeous establishing shots of Bavaria. The film is generally told chronologically, but footage of him in Los Angeles is awkwardly placed at the beginning and end of the film. Herzog workshopping a class of young directors is interesting, but disrupts the doc's momentum early on.

Another problem lies beyond the director's reach: there's so much to cover in Herzog 81 years and 60+ movies. For instance, nothing is said about Nosferatu or The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. To get a fuller picture, read his recent memoirs, Every Man For Himself and God Against All, and the Les Blank docs Burden of Dreams and Klaus Kinski Eats His Shoe

And watch Herzog films.

Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer is released on VOD February 6.

Friday, January 19, 2024

IDS kicks off design weekend in Toronto


ARD Outdoor

Story and photos by Allan Tong

The Interior Design Show opened last night with a party to interrupt the cold snap gripping Toronto. Occupying the northern end of the massive Metro Toronto Convention Centre, the IDS (as it's commonly known) kicked off with flutes of champagne and canopes amid booths and booths of the latest in home furnishings, bathtubs, lighting, wooden floors, ceramic tiles, and even cabins. 

The annual design show runs through Sunday, January 21 with Friday being Professional Development Day aimed at industry folk. Highlights include a keynote by Marva Griffin at 2:00-3:00pm. Griffin is the founded Salone Satellite, the renowned showcase of young designers. She will discuss her unusual career path and how the industry has evolved over the last quarter century. Following her will be Oskar Zieta at 4:00pm speaking about his innovative, inflated metal furniture and Poland’s role in the European design industry.

Saturday and Sunday are open to the public. The line-up:

Saturday 11am-12 noon: Safoura Zahedi (Architect, Interdisciplinary Artist, Educator and Geometry Expert), Beverley Horii (Managing Director and Principal, IA Interior Architects), and Tatiana Soldatova (Principal, Syllable) will be imagining the impact of technology, wellness and culture on the interiors of the (near) future.

Saturday 1-2pm: Tura Cousins Wilson (Studio of Contemporary Architecture), Chad Burton (Fashion Editor and Product Stylist), and Krisette Santamaria (Industrial Designer, Krisette Santamaria Designs) answer the question: Multifunctional, multigenerational, multiuse and multiunit spaces pack in all the needs of modern life, but how do you create a multifaceted living space that still feels cohesive and represents your sense of style? 

Saturday 3-4pm Michael Murphy (Vice President, Fogo Island Workshop & Design), Janet Langdon (Textile Designer), and Ernst Hupel (Partner, 2H Interior Design) will reflect on the design legacy of the innovative Fogo Island Inn off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Sunday 11am-12pm will see Brian Gluckstein dispensing his best design advice and predictions for 2024. Following him will be Christiane Lemieux discussing her collections at retail, books and online store as both an entrepreneur and designer. Also, she will offer tips on how she creates a minimalist, nurturing retreat. At 3pm, Aly Velji will reflect on his collaborations with Urban Barn and Rollout. Questions are welcome from the public.

 Of course, there are the exhibitors. Here's what caught our eye:

Kissing Chair by Alison Postma

Ruums repurposes this 160-square-foot cargo container into a painting or musical studio or as  a dwelling that's situated in your backyard. They'll walk through all the city permits and installing plumbing, if needed.

Lighting by Feelux

Wine flowed at Vicostone

Paint isn't just for walls, says Sherwin-Williams

Montauk Sofa

Roche Bobois

ARD Outdoor

Non-alcohol cocktails by Seedlip were popular

WOODca Design offered an example of cool wooden dwellings at this year's IDS, like this sauna

Of course, there are sinks at IDS, this sleek one by Facileklean

OCH Works

McKae Imaging's backlit canvases

Stylish sinks and faucets, indeed

Coffee's other use by Krisette Sanatamaria

For more coverage including videos, find us on Instagram at chinokino_to