Ana Golja and Louis Gossett Jr. in The CubanIn the opening credits of The Cuban – a new film released in Canada in July, written by Alessandra Piccione and directed by Sergio Navarretta – the viewer is treated to a watercolour montage of Cuban imagery, accompanied by evocative, minor-key music played by a small ensemble. As the credits end and the visuals shift from vibrant animated colour to the live action of a Canadian assisted-living facility, the band drops away. Alone amidst the beige-grey gloom, the piano pensively underscores the scene: paperwork is frowningly passed back and forth; a young boy, bored with his visit, works on a jigsaw puzzle; a full bedpan, making a trip down a dimly-lit hallway, is spilled onto the hardwood. It speaks to the mood-setting power of the score that the moment doesn’t come off as a joke, nor a tragedy, but rather as a small, frustrating but typical event in a day spent caring for the elderly.

The bedpan-spiller is Mina (Ana Golja), a young university student who works at the assisted-living facility, and The Cuban examines the relationship that she develops with Luis (Louis Gossett Jr.), an elderly Cuban musician who lives at the facility and who suffers from dementia. The pianist is Hilario Durán – JUNO-award-winning, Grammy-nominated – who, in addition to performing on the soundtrack, was the film’s score composer. In light of the film’s recent release, I had the opportunity to interview Durán via email about the project’s roots, his connection to the film’s characters, and the Toronto musicians who helped him bring his musical vision for the film to life.

Read more: Music and the Movies: Q&A with The Cuban’s Hilario Durán

The Disciple. Courtesy of TIFFIn this year like no other, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has adapted to the pandemic’s parameters by making most red carpet events virtual and scaling back on how films will be presented. 

TIFF’s 45th edition – running from September 10 to 20 – offers both digital and in-person screenings, using TIFF Bell Lightbox and the Isabel Bader Theatre at reduced capacity to conform to measures provided by the City of Toronto and Public Health Ontario, ensuring that there will be a modicum of lineups. As well as drive-ins at CityView and Ontario Place, there will be an open air cinema at Ontario Place. A sophisticated, secure digital platform, called Bell Digital Cinema, will house most of the 50-plus films selected for TIFF 2020 enabling Festival-goers to watch Festival films at home on their television screens.

Given The WholeNote’s early deadline, TIFF’s schedule and program notes were unavailable, so the current guide is based on a film’s subject matter, a filmmaker’s track record and gleanings from across the Internet.

Read more: 9th Annual TIFF Tips

HTbanner2In this year like no other, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has adapted to the pandemic’s parameters by making most red carpet events virtual and scaling back on how they will be presenting films. TIFF’s 45th edition – running from September 10 to 20, 2020 – will offer both digital and in-person screenings, using TIFF Bell Lightbox and the Isabel Bader Theatre at reduced capacity to conform to measures provided by the City of Toronto and Public Health Ontario, ensuring that there will be a modicum of lineups. As well as drive-ins at CityView and Ontario Place, there will be an open air cinema at Ontario Place. A sophisticated, secure digital platform, called Bell Digital Cinema, will house most of the 50-plus films selected for TIFF 2020, enabling Festival-goers to watch Festival films at home on their television and computer screens.

Given The WholeNote’s early deadline, and with TIFF’s schedule and program notes still a work-in-progress, our annual guide is based on a film’s subject matter, a filmmaker’s track record and gleanings from across the Internet. What follows is a small taste for HalfTones readers of our ninth annual TIFF Tips. Be sure to check out the full story in the September edition of the magazine.

Read more: PREVIEW: 9th Annual TIFF TIPS – for a TIFF like no other

Catrinel Marlon as Gilda in The Whistlers. Photo credit: Vlad Cioplea. Courtesy of Mongrel Media.The Whistlers, the new film by Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest; Police, Adjective), is a lighter-than-air pastiche, a diversion filled with film noir tropes and other cinematic homages, all buoyed by a soundtrack that ranges from Iggy Pop, Ute Lemper and Anna Netrebko to Johann Strauss father and son, punctuated by the likes of Diomedes Diaz & Nafer Duran, Lola Beltrán and Jeanne Balibar.

The well-chosen music begins with Iggy Pop’s jaunty tune, The Passenger, as soon as police detective Cristi (subtly played by Porumboiu regular Vlad Ivanov) arrives at La Gomera in the Canary Islands for a ride inland. He’s there to learn the whistling language, a coded method of communication native to the island of La Gomera that sounds like birds singing, which will enable Cristi to work around any surveillance in the layered, opaque goings on to come. He’s also re-introduced to Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), a bona fide “femme fatale” (a shout-out to Rita Hayworth’s iconic character in Gilda).

As Porumboiu said in an interview with Marcus Rothe: “She’s the archetype of a woman who plays the femme fatale: she betrays the men, turning against them. Catrinel Marlon plays this lure very well, as an ambiguous and unsettling character who manages to manipulate others without them realizing it.”

Cristi is a compromised cop in the pocket of gangsters and known to his fellow detectives who follow his every move in what sometimes resembles an intricately plotted police procedural. He checks into the Opera Motel, its lobby permeated with the sound of an LP of Anna Netrebko singing Casta Diva from Bellini’s Norma. (The hotel clerk tells him that “we are trying to educate” the clientele.) The operatic spirit continues with Netrebko and Elīna Garanča filling the soundtrack with the Barcarolle and its “nuit d’amour” from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann as Cristi drives to a small house where he leaves a package. Later the hotel clerk sings along with it before slitting the throat of a policeman who had asked him to turn off the music. The lovely foreboding and air of mystery of Mozart’s cavatina, L’ho perduta me meschina, from The Marriage of Figaro (sung by Patricia Petibon) accompanies more Cristi subterfuge while later, Ute Lemper’s sublime rendition of Kurt Weill’s Moritat der Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife) is cleverly introduced by its familiar tune being whistled.

As Porumboiu put it: “Music has a strong and important presence in this film with rapid shot or scene changes, since it permeates short scenes and quickly denotes a character’s world. I also like to create interesting shifts using unexpected musical tracks. For instance, by playing classical music in violent scenes or action sequences. This is another way I play with the conventions of the genre film while subverting them.”

The action, which cuts between the rainy gloom of Bucharest and the streams of sunlight beneath the clouds of La Gomera, ends in the neon explosion of Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, with a greatest-hits medley of waltzes by the Strausses (On the Beautiful Blue Danube, Du und Du and Radetsky) and Tchaikovsky (Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker) climaxing in the “Galop infernal” (better known as the French can-can) from Offenbach’s Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld. All of which is introduced by a portion of Orff’s Carmina Burana.

It’s the art of artifice writ large.

The Whistlers is currently playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Still from the film Parasite. Photo c/o TIFF.As movies from last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) continue opening and the awards season advances towards Oscar glory on February 9, we’re checking in on the status of some of the films we spotlighted in our eighth annual TIFF TIPS in the September issue of The WholeNote.

Dancers Ashley Chen and Melissa Toogood in Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace, choreographed to music by Morton Feldman, with costumes and décor by Robert Rauschenberg. Photo credit: Mko Malkhasyan, c/o Magnolia Pictures.Alla Kovgan’s eye-popping, entertaining Cunningham, an invaluable look at the life and work of legendary American choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), has just opened at TIFF Bell Lightbox (with a future engagement to follow at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema). The film features 14 dances that were originally created by Cunningham between 1942 and 1972, including his first collaboration with composer/life partner John Cage, 1942’s Totem Ancestor. Cage’s singular philosophy and wit are prominently displayed throughout (as well as several other choreographed compositions) as part of the fascinating archival footage – some never seen before – that illuminates Cunningham’s early years, rehearsals, tours and “chance dance” technique. Cunningham’s own wry wit emerges in several anecdotes and it’s striking how similar the two life partners’ cadences are when they speak.

The many music and dance re-creations of music by the likes of Morton Feldman, David Tudor and Erik Satie serve as signposts to an artistic world that also contained Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and the Black Mountain poets. But as Cunningham says: “I don’t describe it, I do it.”

Recently opened, François Girard’s The Song of Names, from the book by Norman Lebrecht, is the director’s latest music-themed film after Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin. It’s a sweeping historical drama, about a man searching for his childhood best friend – a Polish-born, London-raised violin prodigy orphaned by the Holocaust – who vanished in 1951 on the night of what would have been his first public performance. Not only does the movie evoke the collateral damage resulting from the Holocaust, it draws us directly to those who perished as a result of it by way of the film’s eponymous musical performance by Clive Owen as the one-time prodigy. Tim Roth also stars as Owen’s adoptive brother. Howard Shore’s indispensable score helps the film hit the right notes while Ray Chen’s world-class violin playing (for Owen) leaps off the screen.

A symbiotic relationship between two families, one rich, the other poor, is at the root of Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s socially conscious genre-buster that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2019. An ingenious and unpredictable twist-laden black comedy overlaying a B-movie construct, its musical component by Jung Jae-il consists mostly of a solo piano melody playing against cello, guitars and orchestral strings, with an original song with lyrics by the filmmaker performed by Choi Woo-shik, an actor in the film. One of 2019’s best films as endorsed by the Academy itself, Parasite – with its six Oscar nominations for Best Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Production Design and Best International Film (a rebranding of the old Best Foreign Language Film category) – is highly recommended.

 Still from the film Les Misérables. Photo c/o TIFF.Ladj Ly’s Cannes Jury Prize-winning debut feature and Academy Award nominee for Best International Film, Les Misérables set to open January 17 at TIFF Bell Lightbox – ingeniously weaves the thematic underpinning of Victor Hugo’s classic novel into an explosive contemporary narrative spotlighting France as a place of seismic political and social change. According to cinezik.org, the score by Canadian rock band Pink Noise (founded by Toronto-based Mark Sauner) is made up of consistent, unchangeable, undifferentiated electronic tablecloths that serve to maintain the film’s palpable tension. An empathetic look at the underbelly of the City of Light, life in the Paris suburbs has not been this well-portrayed since Mathieu Kassovitz’s fondly remembered La Haine (1995).

Nominated for two Oscars (Best International Film and Best Actor), Pedro Almodóvar’s superb new film, Pain and Glory, which bursts with autobiographical references, deals with creativity in a most novel way. It’s the story of a film director, Salvador Mallo (a graceful, subtle, nuanced Antonio Banderas), who is blocked creatively and consumed by physical pain: tinnitus, wheezes, headaches of all kinds; and what he calls pains of the soul – anxiety and tension. When we first meet him, he’s in a swimming pool trying to alleviate his back pain by exercising. He remembers, as a child, watching his mother, Jacinta (a radiant Penelope Cruz), singing A tu vera, a popular Spanish song from 1964, along with three other women, all doing their laundry at a river. It’s a happy memory, seeing his mother so joyful, and as he escapes into it, the soundtrack supports him with quizzical strings whose mysterious melody backs up the voice of a clarinet.

Alberto Iglesias has composed the soundtrack for all of Almodóvar’s films since 1995. Here, his companionable, fully integrated score is linked to what the director calls “three different atmospheres.” The first is inspired by the sunlight of the Valencian village memory; the second is linked to Mallo’s moments of pain and isolation, often adopting faster, repetitive patterns, more frantic musical movements or little tremors. The third sound, “luminous in its simple spirituality,” accompanies the scenes featuring the elderly Jacinta and grown-up Salvador, in Madrid, with the music adopting the mother’s spiritual attitude towards death. Iglesias won the Cannes Soundtrack Award for his intensely moving score – and Banderas won Best Actor at Cannes for his warm, humanistic performance. For more on the music of Pain and Glory, please see my full review at thewholenote.com.

There’s been a Stephen Sondheim shoutout (or more precisely, a sing-out) in three of this year’s TIFF-alumni, Oscar-nominated films. One such film is Noah Baumbach’s astutely observed Marriage Story, which includes Best Actor (Adam Driver) and Best Actress (Scarlett Johansson) among its six Oscar nominations. Johansson, Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever singing You Could Drive a Person Crazy is a useful piece of the movie’s fabric, while Driver’s tour-de-force cover of Being Alive is integral to its artistic success.

Among Todd Phillips’ Joker‘s 11 Oscar nominations is Hildur Guonadóttir’s for Best Original Score. According to her website, the Icelandic-born (1982), Berlin-resident cello player is at the forefront of experimental pop and contemporary music, with the band múm, for example. In her solo work, she draws out a broad spectrum of sounds from her instrument, ranging from intimate simplicity to huge soundscapes. She has written widely for symphony orchestra, theatre, dance and film, and recently became the first woman to win a Golden Globe for Best Original Score. Like fellow Best Actor nominee Adam Driver, Joker‘s Joaquin Phoenix sings a Sondheim song (Send in the Clowns, naturally). While Phoenix’s grip on Oscar gold seems secure, Driver deserves an award for the depth of his musical sensitivity.

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (its sole nomination is for Best Original Screenplay) included Daniel Craig’s character singing the Sondheim song Losing My Mind, which Johnson found to be a perfect analogy for the fact that Craig can’t quite figure out the mystery at the movie’s core. Baumbach, Phillips and Johnson all wrote the Sondheim songs directly into their screenplays before any footage was shot.

Finally, to complete this TIFF 2019 update, as expected, Renée Zellweger remains the favourite to win the Best Actress Oscar for her impersonation of the last months of Hollywood icon Judy Garland’s life in Judy.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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