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.

Classics, old and new. Films reviewed: The Breadwinner, The Man who Invented Christmas, Solaris

Posted in Afghanistan, Animation, Christmas, Cross-dressing, Disguise, Movies, Religion, Science Fiction, USSR, Victorian England, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 24, 2017

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

Fall film festival season grinds to a finish with Blood in the Snow – or BITS – showing distinctly Canadian horror movies. Movies filled with ghosts, creatures and cruel killers who aren’t always what they appear to be. It’s on now through Sunday.

This week I’m looking at three movies about things that aren’t what they seem to be. There’s a girl in Afghanistan who appears to be a boy, a writer in London whose characters appear as if they are alive, and an astronaut in outerspace where people appear who shouldn’t be there.

The Breadwinner

Dir: Nora Twomey

It’s 2001 in Afghanistan. Parvana is an 11 year old girl who goes to the market each day with her dad to earn a meagre living. Times are tough, and her dad is missing a leg. But she loves spending time with him and listening to the stories he tells. But when a young member of the Taliban arrests her father and hauls him off to a faraway prison, Parvana and her whole family are left in a crisis. The Taliban strictly forbids women from leaving home unaccompanied by a man, but then how can they earn a living, contact her dad or even buy food to eat? Will they starve? When Parvana tries sneaking out unaccompanied she is chased and almost killed, saved only by a neighbourhood boy. What can she do? Is her only chance of survival an arranged marriage with a much older man?

Then she has an idea. She cuts her hair short, dresses in a boys’ clothes and chooses a new name. Suddenly she’s free again and a whole new world is open to her. She gets a job in the market and brings home food. She’s the breadwinner now. And she soon discovers she’s not the only one – a boy she makes friends with is actually a girl, just like her. Can she rescue her father from prison? Or will Idris, the young Taliban who arrested her father, see through her disguise?

I thought the Breadwinner was going to be another earnest, educational kids’ cartoon, but it’s not that at all. It’s an exciting and wonderful animated feature that captivated me from start to finish. The main story – a girl trying to rescue her father – is told alongside an Afghan fairytale about scary monsters in the mountains. It’s a Canadian-Irish co-production with amazing art full of swirling colours and patterns, drawn in a distinctive, flat, cut-out style.

Great movie.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

Dir: Bharat Nalluri

It’s 1843. Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is a wildly popular novelist who lives in an ornate London mansion with his wife and kids. His Don Quixote-like father (Jonathan Pryce) has taken up residence in his home, running through cash like a sand in a sieve. There’s a young nanny and a portly housekeeper, Mrs Fisk (Miriam Margolyse) to keep things running properly. He lives high on the hog – his wife just ordered a crystal chandelier. Only problem is he’s bankrupt, his latest novels bombed (ever hear of Barnaby Rudge? Me neither) and, worst of all, he has writer’s block. He can’t come up with a story. If he doesn’t publish something soon, he’ll be in big trouble come January. So he decides to write a Christmas story and publish it himself. But about what?

He takes careful notes — a quote here, a name or a face there – and new characters begin to take shape in his head. He asks an elderly waiter at his gentlemen’s club his name. “It’s Marley”. A crooked lawyer has heavy chains all over an iron safe. A rich man he encounters asks “Are there no prisons for the poor? No workhouses?” And at a funeral with only one stingy mourner, an old man dressed in black (Christopher Plummer) mutters Humbug when he passes Dickens. It’s Scrooge in the flesh! Now all he has to do is write the damned thing. But can he finish A Christmas Carol in time?

I think everyone knows the story about Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the Ghost of Christmas Past. What’s interesting here is to see the real-life inspirations that led to the book. It also reveals some real surprises about Dickens’s own ghosts from his childhood, a frightening litany of debtors prisons and child labour that haunted his adult life. Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) offers a clean-shaven Dickens, and Plummer is perfect as his foil, a funny Scrooge who lives in Dickens’s head along with the rest of his characters.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is fun holiday fare.

Solaris

Dir: Andrey Tarkovsky

It’s the Soviet Union, some time in the distant future. Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is visiting his fathers country home to meet an importany guest, a former cosmonaut named Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky). Berton had been living – along wth other scientists – on a space station parked above a distant planet named Solaris. This planet is covered with water that moves and communicates using waves (as in waves in the ocean). These waves, and this planet seems to have extraordinary power: it can evolve and change from exposure to earthlings like Berton. But his evidence, the film brought back, was useless. So Kelvin goes to the station to investigate and decide whether the three scientists – doctors Sartorius, Girbarian and Snaut – are still productive or if it’s time to close it all down.

When he gets there it’s worse than he feared. One is dead, one looks like something the cat dragged in, and the third has locked himself into his room and won’t come out. Is everyone on Solaris nuts? Then he begins to feel it too. The beautiful Kari (Natalya Bondarchuk), his former lover from years ago, appears in his bedroom, exactly as he remembers her, complete with brown suede dress. Far from an illusion they make in his quarters. And she seems to be immortal. Trauma, injury, death or banishment won’t take her away from him, she reappears anew no matter what happens. And the space ship itself gradually morphs from sterile minimalist metal and, glass into a warm and inviting replica of the home he left. But is it all just an illusion?

Everyone has told me for years how great a director Tarkovsky is. But I had only seen one movie by him – Nostalghia – when I was a student and hated it so much I swore I would never watch his films again. What a waste, and what a mistake.

Tarkovsky is a genius, and Solaris is as brilliant and shocking as everyone says. It’s a must-see for all science fiction fans. It doesn’t have the lasers and space battles, the quick editing and CGIs expected in contemporary space movies, but it doesn’t need it.

It’s perfect the way it is.

And no spoilers here, but the ending is a total shock.

The Breadwinner and The Man Who Invented Christmas open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And a new print of Solaris is playing at the Tiff Bell Lightbox as part of a Tarkovsky retrospective. Go to tiff.net for details.

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

 

Daniel Garber talks to Louis Theroux and John Dower about My Scientology Movie

Posted in Docudrama, documentary, Interview, L.A., Mind Control, Movies, Psychology, Religion by CulturalMining.com on February 17, 2017

mv5bnza0ndc2mjcxml5bml5banbnxkftztcwntk1mjcxnq-_v1_sy1000_cr006641000_al_Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

The Church of Scientology, founded by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, is an organization now led by David Miscavige.  Miscavige was raised as a Scientologist and has been a practitioner since he was a child. It attracts followers from around the world partly drawn by John Dowerthe success of its celebrity members. But its secrecy — along with rumours of mind control and corporal punishment — also attracts investigative journalists who want to find out what goes on behind closed doors.

Louis Theroux is one of these journalists, stymied from entering the inner sanctum of Scientology. Instead he decides to shoot Louis Theroux_My Scientology Moviehis own Scientology movie in LA,  auditioning actors to play the roles of Tom Cruise and Miscavige, with former members on hand to give first-hand guidance.

My Scientology Movie is a new feature documentary about Scientology, about making a film about Scientology, and about Louis Theroux_My Scientology MovieScientologists doing everything they can to stop him.

It’s presented by Theroux and directed by John Dower.

Louis Theroux is an award-winning BBC writer/broadcaster known for his intriguing but controversial subjects.  John Dower creates acclaimed documentaries like Thriller in Manila. The two of them co-wrote this film which opens today in Toronto at the Hot Docs Cinema.

I spoke to them in London from CIUT in Toronto via Skype.

More movies by women. Films reviewed: Moments of Clarity, A Magical Substance Flows Into Me

Posted in Canada, comedy, Cultural Mining, documentary, Israel, Music, Palestine, Religion, Road Movie, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 23, 2016

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

TIFF is over but fall film festival season is just starting. Over the next year you’ll hear many of the interviews I recorded at TIFF, from Paul Verhoeven to Kore-eda Hirokazu and Alanis Obomsawin. There’s a multionational and multilingual selection of films. Still, by the end I realized that only one of the directors I interviewed was a woman. So to start to balance that out, this week I’m only looking at movies directed by women. There’s a home-schooled Christian in search of people to meet; and a Palestinian filmmaker in search of music to listen to.

mocstill6Moments of Clarity

Wri/Dir: Kristin Wallace

Claire (Kristin Wallace) is an eccentric woman in her twenties who lives with her obsessive-compulsive mom (Saxon Trainor). She has no fashion sense or social skills to speak of, but is always good natured and optimistic. She acts like a 12 year old girl. She was home-schooled by her mom and kept sheltered from the rest of the world. She only ventures out to distribute to her neighbours the muffins she bakes, and gets nervous when she enters unknown territory. On the mocstill5-2outside she’s a good Christian girl, but inside she’s a seething cauldron of unrealized sexual fantasies.

Danielle (Lyndsy Fonseca) is the local pastor’s daughter with just the opposite personality. She’s pretty and “normal”, cynical and jaded, but finds joy behind an old camera. Claire wants to be friends wth her. But when her camera is ruined she blames it on Claire. So Claire borrows her mothers wood-panelled station wagon and mocstill4they set out for a used camera store the next town over. But who will they meet on the way? On the run from their respective parents and the police, Claire is exposed to sex, drugs, and the outside world for the first time, and discovers a secret about her past. Can she and Danielle stay friends? And can they both reconcile with their out-of-touch parents?

This is low-budget, buddy/road movie. It’s also a coming of age drama but with a twist… The budding adolescent is actually a fully grown adult, whose life has been stunted by an over protective mother. It’s a fun and simple comedy. I found it hard to believe that a woman in her twenties living in a town surrounded by other people could be that naïve and isolated… but once you accept the premise, the rest falls into place. And Moments of Clarity is written, directed by and starring a Toronto filmmaker.

13923874_1050454381656875_4136600126401296685_oA Magical Substance Flows Into Me

Wri/Dir: Jumana Manna

Robert Lachmann was a German orientalist and ethnomusicologist who fled Nazi persecution to British Mandate Palestine in the 1930s. Once there, he set about collecting the so-called “Oriental” music of that area, while spurning any music with European or North American influences. He recorded traditional and liturgical music on metal disks, as performed by musicians from indigenous and migrant cultures, all carefully documented and recorded. And he broadcasted them on the Palestine Radio Service. This included Bedouins, Palestinian Arabs in the Galilee, Coptic Christians, 13975251_1050454704990176_2875683675079136567_oKurds, Jewish Yemenites, and others.

Eighty years later, using Lachmann’s original notes and recordings, Palestinian filmmaker Jumana Manna sets out to find modern performers of the same songs. She play the original recordings, talks with members of those communities, and invites them to replay the same songs today.

The film is shot in carefully composed tableaux, with an unmoving camera, often in the musician’s kitchen or garden. She talks about their life and background, and then records an actual performance. This is punctuated with the director reading aloud Lachmann’s handwritten notes.

13914070_1050455511656762_431118580071783850_oThis is a fascinating movie. There’s an elderly member of the Samaratins — an ancient religion with fewer than a thousand followers split between Israel and Palestine — today shows off his 600 year old prayer scrolls. Then he listens to his father-in-law’s recording and sings along. You can’t find a voice like that anymore, he laments. A Kurdish man discusses pickles and olives. A Coptic Christian who leads tourists around holy sites says business is bad. People are afraid to come out here anymore. They hear about Isis beheadings in Iraq and think it’s all the same. And a Moroccan-Israeli woman celebrates her grandmother’s Arab roots.

This is a quiet film but subtly political. Musical performances are juxtaposed with silent shots of 1470789934802Israeli government maps of the occupied territories; shots of graffiti on both sides of the wall separating Israel from Palestine; and the director’s own father, a scholar of Palestinian history. Lachmann’s notes range from priceless records to weirdly dated, orientalist views of “primitive cultures.” Fascinating documentary.

Moments of Clarity opens today at the Carlton in Toronto. A Magical Substance Flows Into Me is queen-of-katweplaying as part of the Toronto Palestine Film Festival this weekend. Go to tpff.ca for details. And there’s Queen of Katwe, (which I talked about last week) the heart-warming story of an impoverished and illiterate teenaged girl in Uganda who wants to become a chess champion. It’s directed by the great Indian filmmaker Mira Nair, and starts 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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