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

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.

July 28, 2011 Multiculturalism Not Dead! Movies Reviewed: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Rocksteady: the Roots of Reggae

Posted in Canada, China, Cultural Mining, documentary, Foot Binding, Jamaica, Movies, Queer, Reggae, Romance, Uncategorized, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 31, 2011

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, and movies that taste good, and what the difference is.

Last week — when the biggest worry seemed to be how hot the weather is, where to go for summer vacation, or how to fill one’s time without school – came a piece of news out of Europe shattering the calm and quiet. Someone had set off a car bomb outside government buildings on the ordinarily peaceful streets of Oslo, Norway. And, as the story developed, there was someone shooting people – kids! – at a summer camp nearby.

Who could it be? The usual suspects? Must be those “Islamists”! the newswires were saying. Immigrants were angry about being deported, online sites said. Or it must be because of those political cartoons: Denmark and Norway are both Scandinavian, after all. But why were they bombing buildings of the current left-of-centre government? And why had the chosen a summer camp for the same youth wing of the very same party?

It turns out, it wasn’t Al Qaeda after all. It wasn’t a home-grown muslim sleeper cell. It wasn’t an eco-terrorist, or a black bloc anarchist.

It’s a self-described conservative Christian Norwegian man who is trying to foment a right-wing revolution across Europe. Shocking! And what is his enemy, what is it he’s fighting against? Listen closely, Canadians, because this is for us: The ideology he says he fighting is…

Multiculturalism.

WHAT?

He chooses the most innocuous of all things Canadian as his bete noir? That’s like saying he’s setting off bombs because he doesn’t like poutine, or butter tarts, or Hockey Night in Canada, or dragon boat races or double-doubles, or smoked meat, or two-fours. He’s murdering children to protest against puppies, or mittens, or Banff, or the smell of coriander.

He claims multiculturalism is to blame for all the world’s problems. I strongly disagree: it’s what makes Canada a great country.

So, this week — in part to protest against right-wing villains like Anders Behring Breivik and their xenophobic hatred and fear of all things different or foreign — I’m looking at a couple movies about important aspects of Canada’s diverse culture: a drama about Chinese women, and a documentary about Jamaican music.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Dir: Wayne Wang

Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) is a young girl in 19th century Hunan, China whose mother binds her feet in order to marry her out to a good husband. You can hear the bones of her toes breaking, one by one. Tiny feet were the only path to class mobility, for a poor girl. And her feet make her suitable for a rich husband. But she’s surprised when her matchmaker also sets her up with a young woman as her Laotong – her BFF in modern language. She signs a contract and is more-or-less married to her as well, as a lifelong friend and confidant.

She and Lily (Li Bingbing) learn a secret language written in a Chinese script called “Nvshu” or women’s writing. Even after they are married – poor Lily weds a rich but loveless foot-fetishist, the formerly wealthy Snow Flower meets a boorish butcher – they continue to communicate via secret messages written in poetry on folding fans.

Flashforward to present day, sophisticated Shanghai. Now Lily’s descendent, Nina, lies in a coma after an accident, and her modern day laotong, Sophia, wants to find out what happened to her, and why they were no longer the best friends they were as teenagers.

The movie cuts back and forth between the parallel stories, as women’s past and present-day lives (played by the same two actresses) and status are compared. Nina’s fan-messages, that were saved over the centuries, provide Sophia the clues as to what really happened back then, and possibly what was happening between the two friends now.

The acting was good, and I thought the movie was pretty interesting and told me a lot that I wouldn’t otherwise know. But it was also sort of messy and confusing and meandering. The weaker, modern day scenes were less interesting than the hostrical ones, except for the scenes with the always entertaining Vivian Wu as a tragic Shanghai Auntie.

While not perfect, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a very rare thing: a Hollywood-style movie, with an all-Asian cast (from China and Korea), in Chinese, about a relationship between two women.

Now another movie about an important part of Canadian culture.

Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae
Dir: Stascha Bader

What is rocksteady music? Where did it come from? And what does it mean?

Rocksteady is ska… slowed down; it comes Jamaica, from an island of 2 1/2 million people that has recorded over 300,000 songs; and there’s a movie that explains it all for you.

The movie documents the big Rocksteady reunion that took place recently in Kingston, Jamaica when all the legendary musicians, many of whom hadn’t seen each other in 4 decades, got together to recreate the sixties sound. Sly Dunbar, Rita Marley, Leroy Sibbles, the Tamlins, U-Roy, Marcia Griffiths all talk to the camera and perform their music in studio.

This movie gives brief biographies of all the men and women in the rocksteady movement in Jamaica in the 60’s. Better than that is the rerecording of all the great songs from that era that every Canadian would recognize, songs like The Tide is High, You Don’t Love Me, No No No, By the Rivers of Babylon, and others.

What’s really interesting about the movie is the way the musicians explain the meanings of the songs, their contexts. I grew up hearing a lot of these songs — especially the soundtracks of The Harder They Come, and Rockers – liking the music without knowing what they were singing about. This documentary lets the songs original musicians explain what they meant.

For example, when Jamaica got its independence from Britain in 1962, it started to boom, with lots of construction, investment and industry in Kingston. But along with the economic boom there was a big influx of people from small towns into the capital, and not everyone got jobs. So some of the young men, jobless in the shantytowns and cut off from their families, became rude boys – the gangsters that terrorized the rest of Kingston. Hence Desmond Decker’s song Shanty Town.

And the people pouring into the city by train looking for jobs? Stop That Train….

Historical scenes are illustrated by black and white newspaper photos, record covers, and film and TV clips from the period, accompanied by new recordings by the original artists. Rocksteady is an enjoyable, nostalgic look at the golden age of reggae music in Jamaica.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is playing now, and Rocksteady is playing for free as part of this weekend’s Irie Music Festival. It’s playing under the stars on Sunday, July 31st at 9:30 p.m. There are also sound stages set up for concerts at Queens Park and Dundas square. For more information look at http://www.iriemusicfestival.com

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining . com.

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