Disruptions. Films reviewed: Marlina the Murderer, Darken, North Mountain

Posted in Canada, Darkness, Feminism, Indigenous, Indonesia, LGBT, Nova Scotia, violence, Western, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 29, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s Canada Day weekend – a good time for fireworks, beer, and maybe a movie. So I’ve been looking around for films not from south of the border — and three unusual ones caught my eye. Two are from Canada — and one from Indonesia — and two of the three are directed by and feature women.

This week I’m looking at three movies about people whose lives are disrupted by unexpected visitors. There’s a Mi’kmaq trapper fighting off thieves in eastern Canada, a widow fighting off rapists in eastern Indonesia, and a Toronto nurse fighting medieval soldiers… in a parallel universe.

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts

Dir: Mouly Surya

It’s present day Sumba, an island in Eastern Indonesia near Flores and Timor Leste. Marlina (Marsha Timothy) is a sad and lonely widow. Her only child died years ago, and her husband’s body sits beside her in her home, wrapped in traditional cloth, awaiting his funeral. All she has left are her cattle, chickens and pigs. But her sad relections are interrupted one day by a visitor on a motorbike. It’s Marcus (Egy Fedly) an evil, long-haired outlaw from a nearby town. He heard she’s alone and comes there to take advantage. I have a gang of six more men on their way, he says. You’re a woman all alone, so we own you now. You’re going to cook us a meal. We will steal your cattle and anything else you own. And — if you’re lucky — we’ll rape you, but not kill you. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Marlina is sickened and terrified… but not helpless. She poisons four of the men with her chicken soup, and when Marcus sexually assaults her, Marlina, in a moment of desperation, grabs a machete and chops off his head! Not knowing what else to do, she decides to turn herself in to the local police.

At the truck-taxi stop she meets a neighbour named Novi (Dea Panendra) who reacts rather mildly to the dead man’s head she’s carrying.  Novi is more concerned with her own problems. She’s ten months pregnant but the baby just won’t come out! So they set off down the long and twisting road to the nearest town.

But two of the killers are still after her. Will Novi ever give birth? Should Marlina turn herself in? And what will she do with Marcus’s head?

Marlina the Murderer is a genre-busting drama, part revenge pic, part feminist western, part art house dark comedy. It has an amazingly calm tone in the midst of horrible crime. There are horses, and posses, and road trips and fights. I haven’t seen many Indonesian movies, so I’m far from an expert, but the two stars were both in great action movies I actually have seen: Headshot and The Raid 2 – which is a good sign. And it introduces the music, customs and amazing scenery and people of Sumba, a place I had never heard of before this film, but now at least have experienced a taste of it.

Marlina the Murderer is a brilliant, rich and baffling movie.

Darken

Dir: Audrey Cummings

Eve (Bea Santos) is a Toronto nurse who’s feeling down. She’s depressed and her life has lost its point. Until one day she runs into a woman on a sidewalk calling for help. The woman is dressed in a strange medieval leather outfit and is bleeding from a knife wound. She asks Eve to rescue her friends. But when Eve opens a door to a nearby building, she finds herself, like Alice in Wonderland, in a whole other world.

It’s a land called Darken, composed of a series of linked rooms and hallways, It’s always indoors in Darken and always nighttime. It’s governed by a goddess who provides life through her blood and is ruled by an autocratic priestess named Clarity (Christine Horne). It serves as a refuge for outcasts from different eras, all of whom live peacefully together. That is, until now.

The Mother Goddess is out of the picture, and Clarity has declared war on all dissidents. Her spear-wielding guards – all decked out in Game of Thrones gear – provide her the muscle; and a lackey (Ari Millen) — who reminds me of the young Penguin on Gotham — defends her legal rulings.

But Eve falls in with the rebels, including the fierce Kali (Olunike Adeliyi) and the kindly Mercy (Zöe Belkin) who communicates using sign language. Which side will win? And can Eve ever get back to her normal world?

Darken is a science fiction/fantasy set in a parallel universe. It ranges from unexpected plot twists to absolute cheese. Above all, this feature shouts TV, from the set design, to the lighting, to the acting and the script. There are even scenes that fade to black as if they’re saying: Insert Ad Here. And I find shows shot entirely on dark blue sets claustrophobic. But that’s just me.

On the other hand, women-centred science fiction or fantasy movies are rarer than an affordable apartment in Toronto. And this one has a a goddess, an evil priestess, a heroine, and noble fighters — all played by women. The men are there as peripheral characters or arm candy.

And for that reason alone it might be worth seeing.

North Mountain

Dir: Bretten Hannam

Wolf (Justin Rain) is a young hunter/trapper in a Nova Scotia forest. He knows every rock and tree on North Mountain: where to set the snares, where to hunt the deer. He lives a traditional Mi’kmaq life in his Grandmother’s wooden cabin, a life still lit by candlelight. He uses a bow and arrow to kill the animals he eats, and honours and respects each life he sacrifices. It’s a simple, quiet existence, punctuated by monthly visits to the town store where he catches up with Mona (Meredith MacNeil), a long time friend.

Nothing changes except the seasons, until… he finds an older man’s body leaning against a tree. He’s bleeding, barely alive, and is holding a leather satchel filled with cold, hard American cash. Wolf tends to his wounds until Crane (Glenn Gould) comes back to life. Turns out he’s from this place and speaks the same language.

Their first conversations are fraught with violence and fistfights and filled with suspicion. But at some point their initial violent antipathy shifts to something very different: they become lovers! And just as they’re making sense of it, a group of strangers comes to the mountain. A posse of crooked cops and organized criminals. They want the cash and don’t care who they kill to get it. Can a pair of indigenous lovers wielding bow, arrow and tomahawk overcome a heavily-armed contingent?

North Mountain is half violent thriller, half passionate, aboriginal gay love story. Rain and Gould (of Plains Cree and Mi’kmaq heritage, respectively) are excellent as the two lovers, and the action – including references to Peckinpaw’s ultra-violent Straw Dogs – is as heart-pounding as any good thriller.

North Mountain, Darken and Marlina the Murderer 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.

Big plans. Films reviewed: Octavio is Dead, American Animals, Hearts Beat Loud

Posted in Brooklyn, Canada, College, Coming of Age, Crime, Cultural Mining, Dreams, Ghosts, LGBT, Music, Romance by CulturalMining.com on June 22, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s Pride weekend in Toronto, so this week I’m looking at three indie movies, two of which fall somewhere with in the LGBTQ2 spectrum – can you guess which two? I’ve got four Kentucky fratboys with a secret plan; a Brooklyn daughter and dad forming a band; and a young woman in Hamilton… dressed like a man!

Octavio is Dead

Wri/Dir: Sook-yin Lee

Tyler (Sarah Gadon: Indignation) is a young woman who lives with her shrewish single mom (Rosanna Arquette) in suburban Toronto. But a knock on their door changes everything. It seems her father Octavio, a latino poet and teacher she never met has died. And he left her his condo and all his possessions. So she heads out to Hamilton to try to find out he was, exactly.

What she finds there is surprising. His flat is an Old Curiosity Shop, filled with persian rugs, oil paintings, tapestries and floor-to-ceiling shelves full of books. (She loves books.) There’s a sunroom with withering plants and eccentric neighbours all around. And strangest of all, Octavio himself, or at least his ghost, appears every so often to proffer advice. Later, she sees a young man in a hoodie who has some connection to her dad. She follows him to a burlesque club but is barred from entering: Men Only!

So she cuts off her hair, puts on one of Octavio’s suits and tries again. This time she meets the young man and he opens up to her. Apostolis (Dimitris Kitsos), is a poet who learned about art and literature at Octavio’s knee. He also knew him… intimately. Apostolis likes posing in bathtubs dressed in a toga. He also seems to like Tyler – a lot – and she likes him, too. The problem is he desires her thinking she’s Octavio’s son, while she’s attracted to him as a woman to a man. What to do?

Octavio is Dead is a quirky, indie movie by Sook-yin Lee, best known for CBC’s DNTO, Definitely Not The Opera. This film is also not an opera, but it is full of classical themes projected against a grittty, downtown Hamilton. Cross-dressing Riley feels more Shakespearean than non-binary queer, but the performances — especially laid back Kitsos and intense Gadon — are pleasing to watch.

American Animals

Wri/Dir: Bart Layton

It’s Lexington, Kentucky in 2004. Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is at university studying art, when he notices something strange at Transylvania University. No, not vampires, this is a actual place. A library there holds priceless artworks – like Audubon’s famous bird paintings – in the form of rare books. And these volumes – worth over 10 million dollars – are watched over by a single librarian (Ann Down). He tells this to a friend Warren, (Evan Peters) and a scheme begins to hatch. Warren’s at school on a sports scholarship but is bored by college life. He wants to do something big, something exciting.

His plan is simple: We enter the library disguised as old men, disable the librarian, open the glass case, take out the books and walk straight out the basement door without anyone knowing what we did! The perfect heist.

But they also need a driver and a lookout. So they enlist two friends they can trust: Eric (Jared Abrahamson) a contrarian genius; and Chas (Blake Jenner) a jock / entrepreneur whose also a great driver. Together they just might pull it off.

American Animals is a story of simple plans gone astray and their potential moral consequences. It’s a true story, and the real people involved – the four guys plus the librarian – bring a real-life element as they narrate the story, documentary-style. This stylish true crime drama has some thrilling parts, but it’s mainly good for the characters and the

LA Times: American Animals actors and real counterparts

actors that portray them. Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, Killing of a Sacred Deer) is great as a bored art student, and Canadian Jared Abrahamson (Hello Destroyer, Hollow in the Land, Sweet Virginia) who normally plays angry young men is unrecognizeable as the fuzzy-bearded smart kid. And at times the real people interviewed are even more fascinating than the actors who play them.

Hearts Beat Loud

Dir: Brett Haley

Frank (Nick Offerman) is a former musician who lives in Red Hook, a waterside Brooklyn neighbourhood, with his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons). Frank owns a record store, while Sam is preparing for college: she leaves for UCLA in the fall. For Sam, everything’s coming up roses. She’s going to be a doctor, and meets a pretty young artist Rose (Sasha Lane). Is it true love?

For Frank, on the other hand, times are tough. He’s a musician who has raised his biracial daughter alone since his wife (and former band mate) died in an accident. Now he’s closing his record store and his eccentric lounge singer mom (Blythe Danner) has been arrested for shoplifting. And he’s getting mixed signals from his landlady/prospective girlfriend Leslie (Toni Collette) Is she just a friend… or something more?

The one thing he still has is his jam sessions with Sam. And a particularly good one yields some potential hit singles. When he posts them online, they start picking up listeners. Will the record store be saved? Can Sam take a year off to record and tour with her two-member band? Or will she leave the band, her family and her girlfriend to go to UCLA?

Hearts Beat Loud – which is also the name of one of their songs – is a sweet and gentle story of family and first love. Offerman is believable as a midlife crisis dad trying to hold on to his authenticity, and Kiersey Clemons is wonderful as Sam. She performs her own music, and luckily, she’s really good at it… since about a third of the movie is about people making music.

This film leaves you with a warm feeling inside.

Octavio is Dead, American Animals, and Hearts Beat Loud 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.

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.

Daniel Garber talks with director Sarah Fodey about The Fruit Machine at Inside Out

Posted in Canada, documentary, Inside Out, LGBT, Politics, RCMP by CulturalMining.com on June 1, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Canada finished WWII riding high as the fourth biggest military power in the world. Then came the Cold War and the red scare it inspired — a widespread panic about communist infiltration.

They look just like you and me, and might be hiding in plain sight... In the ensuing crackdown, another group was also labeled insidious, morally corrupt, and unpatriotic.

Who were these potential spies? And how could they be detected?

These “spies” were actually just ordinary lesbian, gay or bisexual Canadians, “detected” using a device the RCMP jokingly named the fruit machine. Suspects were locked in rooms, interrogated, forced to confess and expose friends and lovers. They were fired from their jobs, humiliated and ostracized.

A new documentary called The Fruit Machine looks at this terrible period and the effect it had on generations of Canadians. It tells about a dark side of history: over half a century of relentless persecution of gays and lesbians in the civil service and military.

The films was written, directed and produced by Sarah Fodey for TVO Docs. It has its world premier today at 4 pm at Toronto’s Inside Out LGBT film festival.

I spoke to Sarah about The Fruit Machine by telephone at CIUT 89.5 FM.

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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