Saturday, September 10, 2022

TIFF ’22: The Umbrella Men

The Bo-Kaap is a neighborhood in Capetown, but it sure gives of NOLA vibes, thanks to the high concentration of pre-1850 architecture and the competitive marching jazz bands. Maintaining the jazz traditions takes hard work and it also costs money. Unfortunately, the bank is poised to foreclose on the Goema club, so they can flip it to a mobbed-up developer. To save his late father’s neighborhood institution, Jerome and his friends go where the money is in John Barker’s caper comedy, The Umbrella Men, which premiered internationally at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Jerome did not want to run the Goema or its affiliated marching band, the Umbrella Men, but everyone expects him to step up after his father’s funeral. Instead, he just wants to greet his old pal Mortimer when he is finally released from prison and then return to his life in Joburg. However, the way his father’s old gangster rival Tariq venally covets the property just rubs him the wrong way. Unfortunately, the local Bo-Kaap neighborhood bank is calling in all his father’s debts, so he decides to steal directly from them to pay-off their liens.

The heist caper that unfolds is pretty cleverly conceived in its own right, incorporating Capetown’s old tunnel system and the noonday gun fired every afternoon at twelve-sharp. Yet, it is the music, composed by Kyle Shepherd and performed by trumpeter Darren English, Buddy Wells on reeds, and the Loukmaan Adams Band that really gives the film its appealing character. Eventually, Jerome rediscovers his musical soul on both banjo and trumpet, while planning a complicated
Rififi-style operation.

Lovers of New Orleans culture will really get warm fuzzies when the plot culminates during the annual Kaapse Klopse carnival, which commemorates the one day off granted to slaves during the colonial era. (It brings to mind Sundays at Congo Square, except it was 52 times more severe.) Regardless, the music is joyous and swinging. There is maybe a slight highlife-ish flavor to it, which makes it fun and distinctive.

The cast is also appropriately dynamic and charismatic, particularly Jaques De Silva and Shamilla Miller, as Jerome and Keisha, the under-employed bank employee he starts romancing. Miller never plays her as a naïve idiot, which gives the film a lot of credibility. Plus, Keenan Arrison nicely balances gritty toughness with meatheaded humor as Mortimer, the very-recently-ex-con.

Umbrella Men
maybe starts a little slow, but it steadily picks up energy as it goes along. Barker and co-writers Lev David and Philip Roberts stay true to the genre, by dropping several clever twists-and-turns and crosses-and-double-crosses, without giving viewers the feeling they are trying too hard. It all works quite smoothly and sounds terrific. Highly recommended, The Umbrella Men screens again Wednesday (9/14) and Friday (9/16) as part of this year’s TIFF.