Good genres. Films reviewed: Ishtar, Tokyo Vampire Hotel, Hereditary

Posted in 1980s, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Family, Horror, Japan, Movies, Supernatural, Vampires by CulturalMining.com on June 9, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

As I frequently say, don’t confuse highbrow cinema with good movies, and genre films with bad movies. Good and bad exist in both worlds. This week I’m looking at three entertaining, genre movies: a comedy thriller, a horror movie and a horror/comedy. We’ve got lounge singers in a hotel in war-torn North Africa, a singles retreat in a hotel run by vampires, and a family living in a dollhouse-like home… that might be haunted.

Ishtar (1987)

Wri/Dir: Elaine May

Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) is a gullible rube from the sticks; while Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) is a fast-talking pickup artist from Queens. Together they’re Rogers and Clarke a musical duo of singer-songwriters in New York. They think they’re going to be the next Lennon and McCartney or Simon and Garfunkel, but they are missing one key element: talent! Needless to say, they’re going nowhere fast. Their savings are gone, and their girlfriends have left them, and their agent is far from helpful. But he does have a gig for them at a hotel in Morocco. Sounds good! So they fly, off via the remote (fictional) kingdom of Ishtar.

But Ishtar is on the brink of revolution. And an ancient map that a local archaeologists has just found is the only spark needed to light that fire. Lyle and Chuck are clueless, of course, and just want to perform their act. But the hapless Americans are quickly drawn into this intrigue.

There’s a shifty American CIA agent (Charles Grodin) who convinces Chuck he can help their career; and a fiery revolutionary named Shirra (Isabelle Adjani) disguised as a young man who seduces Lyle to get him to help her cause. Will Rogers and Clarke split up? As fate would have it they end up in a camel caravan in the Sahara desert, pursued by militants, mercenaries, gun runners, nomads and US bombers, all convinced they have that crucial map.

When Ishtar came out in 1987 it was a collasal flop with many critics calling it the worst movie ever made. I disagree. I finally watched it and I think it’s a hoot. It’s funny and politically astute; when was the last mainstream comedy you saw with the CIA and US military as the bad guys? OK, its cultural impressions are rather obtuse, but it’s making fun of the American characters’ disguises not the locals. And it takes place before the “regime change” wars yet to come.

More than that, here are Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman — former icons — making fun of the whole generation of baby boomers, saying how did they all end up so uncool? Even their improvisational songs are bad-funny. If you’re yearning to see a forgotten piece of 80s culture, check out Ishtar.

Tokyo Vampire Hotel

Wri/Dir: Sion Sono

It’s 2022 in Tokyo, Japan, and something big is about to happen. Manami (Tomite Ami) can feel it. She’s about to turn 22 and is having strange thoughts. Like buzzing away at her hair until she looks like Eleven on Stranger Things. But when she witnesses a mass shooting inside a restaurant that kills everyone but her she really freaks. She barely escapes and owes her life to a mysterious woman named K (Kaho). That’s when Manami discovers the killings were committed by rival gangs searching for her. She is crucial to their plans, but she doesn’t know why.

Meanwhile, a major Tokyo hotel has invited singles to a special event – a dating weekend for coupling up. What the guests don’t know is the hotel is run by vampires. And they’re the main course. Add a rivalry between two vampire lineages, the Draculs and the Corvins, fighting for power; a Transylvania/Japan connection, and a Prime Minister who might destroy the world, and there you have it: a bloody, non-stop battle royale fought by rival vampires and hotel guests in a Tokyo hotel.

If you think that’s a lot of plot for one movie, you’re right. It’s actually a condensed version of a TV series, edited to fit into a single film. There are love affairs, Romanian castles, hidden rivers, a female killer dressed in pink, and sinister royal matriarchs, one of whom runs a secret world of blood orgies involving thousands of slaves… hidden inside her vagina! Tokyo Vampire Hotel isn’t for everyone, but I found it shocking, disgusting, sexy and hilarious.

Director Sion Sono is one of my favourite Japanese directors, a master schlockmeister unmatched when it comes to rivers of blood. Every frame uses saturated colours, and lightning-fast editing.

He treats blood as an art form, spilling it everywhere in a grotesquely beautiful way.

Heriditary

Wri/Dir: Ari Aster

Annie and Steve (Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne) are a happy middle aged couple with two kids. Peter (Alex Wolff) is a pothead in high school crushing on a girl from class. Charlie (MIllly Shapiro) is younger and a bit tetched in the head. She draws strange pictures and puts scraps of wood and metal together to make little dolls. She must have got that from her mom, an artist, who builds intricate doll houses that recreate important aspects of her own family’s lives. They live in a beautiful if isolated wooden home filled with her doll houses.

But ever since Annie’s own mother died, strange things keep happening in her house. Things like doors opening by themselves, and nonsense words found scrawled on walls. Charlie wanders off when she should be at home, Peter awakens from hideous nightmares, and mom finds herself sleepwalking holding a knife in a fugue state. What can it all mean? But when decapitated birds lead to human deaths, Annie feels she has to stop this. But what is she fighting aganst? And is she too late?

Hereditary is a chilling thriller/horror, beautifully made. You’re never quite sure if your watching Peter’s pot-fueled nightmares, Annie’s sleepwalking visions, life inside her intricate dollhouse dioramas, or real life. And by “real life” I mean supernatural goings on.

Scene changes are so skillfully done, it shifts seamlessly through these conflicting realities. This is director Ari Aster’s first feature but the acting, art direction and camera work turns a conventional story into a remarkable film.

Great movie.

Hereditary opens today in Toronto; Ishtar is at TIFF Cinematheque as part of Funny Girl: The Films of Elaine May; and Tokyo Vampire Club is playing at Toronto’s Japanese Film Festival.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Quests. Films reviewed: Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, Let the Sunshine In, First Reform

Posted in Christianity, Death, Drama, France, Jamaica, Movies, Music, Reggae, Religion, Sex by CulturalMining.com on June 1, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

Toronto’s spring festival season continues. Inside Out finishes this weekend, and look out for the Japanese Film Fest and True Crime Film Festival both opening next weekend.

But this week I’m looking at three new movies by three great directors about people on quests. There’s a musician driven by fame, a woman searching for love, and a clergyman holding on to his immortal soul.

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

Dir: Sophie Fiennes

Grace Jones is a multi-talented artist and performer. Known for her distinctive voice, looks and style, she has left a mark on everything from fashion to pop music. Originally from Spanish Town in Jamaica, she made it big as a model in France, capturing the fashion world with her androgynous body and striking features. Later she shifted to music, recording first dance hits like La Vie en Rose, followed by the punk sounds of Warm Leatherette, and pop songs with a drum-and-bass reggae theme provided by Sly and Robbie. And as an actress she perfected the look of a crazed, cold villain in movies like James Bond’s View to a Kill.

This movie strips her bare physically and emotionally as she returns to Jamaica to visit her family and record a new album. The camera follows her as she digs up her family’s past, tries to record songs, and goes on a concert tour. It also includes a stopover in Paris to record a TV music video; and her performances on stage. This is an intimate portrayal of the underground superstar – who turned 70 this year, still dancing, changing clothes, arguing on the phone, and putting on the elaborate headddresses and costumes she’s known for. It also makes her seem a bit crazy – her accent shifts from Jamaican to American to british depending on whom she’s talking to, even shifting to a sort of french when she’s in Paris.

This no-holds-barred portrait is not always pretty but always fascinating.

First Reformed

Wri/Dir: Paul Schrader

Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a lonely reverend at an old church with a long history. He carries heavy baggage of his own: a dead son and memories of war. The church itself – First Reformed – has been there for centuries and is approaching its historical anniversary. For the Church administrators this is a PR goldmine and chance for big corporate donations. But Toller is an old-school preacher with traditional ideas. He feels like he’s losing his calling, and isn’t comfortable playing a pretend minister for tourists at a historical site. Luckily, there is a parishioner with real problems who needs his help.

Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is going through a crisis with her husband Michael, an environmental activist. She’s worried about him losing it. And the environmentalists are diametrically opposed to the very corporate donors that are keeping the church on its feet. As Toller gets involved in their lives, he re finds his calling. But things take a shocking turn with one unexpected death and the possibility of more. What path will Toller take, what is the church’s future, and what will become of Mary?

I’m not saying anything more about the plot, but let me just say that what starts as a simple and almost boring story slowly builds to an intense and shocking finish. Paul Schrader is a great director — he did Cat People, American Gigolo and Mishima — and an even better scriptwriter: Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

I don’t always like Ethan Hawke’s acting, but I do here – this might be his best performance ever.

Let The Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur)

Dir: Claire Denis

Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) is a middle aged artist at the peak of her career. She expresses her art using big brushes on huge canvases nailed to her studio floor. She’s signing with a new art dealer, and is financially secure, a great house, and her ex husband is taking care of their daughter. She is beautiful with a sparkling personality. The world is her oyster… so why is she having so much trouble finding a pearl? The problem is it takes two to tango and the men she meets aren’t playing their parts correctly.

She has carried on multiple relationships since her divorce. There’s a married banker who thinks she’s loves him, when it’s actually her repulsion toward him that turns her on. A handsome and famous but vapid actor thinks he’s great with the women, but despite the great sex, he does courtship all wrong. She wants the seduction, the passion and the ongoing interplay a relationship needs. He just wants a director to give him his lines.

Then there’s a mysterious and passionate man she meets while dancing, but who doesn’t fit in with her friends. Even her ex-husband sometimes spends the night when he’s in Paris.

Can she find her life partner, the best man out there? Or will she settle?

Ignore the pedestrian title, Let the Sunshine In is sophisticated and subtle movie. Juliette Binoche shines in every scene, she funny, clever and quirky. Claire Denis is one of best directors in France who is vastly underrated. This story is told purely from the female gaze – that of Isabelle.

It pokes fun at men – and at the women who fall for their tricks.

Grace Jones, Let the Sunshine In and First Reformed all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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