Movies, movies, movies!

Nurse Bob's film reviews

When rating a film I ask myself these three questions: What is the director’s goal or purpose? How does the director try to achieve it? Is the director successful? Hence a big box office hit may get a “5” while a Eurosleaze sexploitation flick gets a “7”. My rating system in a nutshell:

10 = Brilliant!
9 = Exceptional
8 = Very Good
7 = Good
6 = Average
5 = Forgettable
4 = Bad
3 = Dismal
2 = Dog Barf
1 = Beyond Awful


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The Mermaid (China 2016) (7): Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale gets a makeover from Greenpeace and The Three Stooges in Stephen Chow’s slapstick comedy, one of China’s highest-grossing domestic films ever. After their delicate ecosystem is threatened by a ruthless developer, a pod of mermaids decide to assassinate him. To this end they employ Shan, a bumbling young mermaid able to pass as human thanks to her modified tail fin and a pair of clunky yellow boots. Unfortunately, once evil tycoon meets fishy naif it’s (almost) love at first sight which throws both sides into a panic… Buoyed by ridiculously funny sight gags—the octopus-man ringleader gets all the best laughs—and highly inventive though not quite Hollywood-grade CGI effects, Chow’s rollicking “movie-with-a-message” never quite manages to comfortably pair it’s sillier elements with later scenes of brutal carnage, including stock footage of a bloody dolphin hunt, leaving us to feel as if we’re watching two different films. But silliness abounds right from the opening scene as a conman and his family try to fleece tourists with a cheap ass “museum” of natural curiosities (cue painted dog, three inch tyrannosaur, and fat guy in mermaid suit). Granted, a comedy with habitat destruction at its core is an understandably bitter pill, but Chow wraps it up in a fun candy coating which has you giggling throughout. The thinking comes later.

Broken
(England 2012) (2): Welcome to the most dysfunctional cul-de-sac in Great Britain home of “Skunk” (Eloise Laurence), the diabetic daughter of solicitor and single parent Archie (Tim Roth) a respectable man who happens to be caught up in a romantic triangle with his Polish au pair. Across the street are the Buckleys and their adult son Rick who is not only mentally challenged, he may very well be dangerous. And next door to them is single father Bob Oswald (Rory Kinnear), a hot-tempered asshole whose three lying slag daughters would rather watch the world burn than tell the truth. Over the next few days the impressionable Skunk will witness human nature at its worst as sex, lies, and violence irrevocably change her small world. Plagued by a script marked with ludicrous turns and schoolgirl clichés (that first kiss! that terrible bully! that baffling old adult world!) Rufus Norris’ contrived melodrama tries too hard to mix tragedy with a bit of irony and humour as a nearby auto scrapyard becomes a destructive metaphor and Skunk’s verbal spars with Archie, meant to be precocious, wind up dull and childish. And what’s with those twins tossing bags of shit at people for no apparent reason? Aside from a waste of acting talent everything feels strained and theatrical from the wailing tears to the bloody fisticuffs to a gauzy “spiritual” sequence as one character stands at a crossroads. If you like your pathos served up hot and heavy then get out your napkin and tuck in for Norris has ensured there’s plenty to go around.

Avanti!
(USA 1972) (7): Notable for flashes of nudity, colourful language, and post “sexual revolution” morality, it’s difficult to decide which part of Billy Wilder’s “fish out of water” farce is ultimately most appealing: the star chemistry between leads Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills, or the Isle of Capri’s lush photo ops. Wendell Armbruster Jr, the punctilious son of an American business magnate (Lemmon, earning a Golden Globe), is forced to take an unexpected flight to Italy after his vacationing father dies in a car crash. Once there however the complications begin before he even has a chance to clear customs; but the real shocker is waiting for him at the hotel. As it turns out dear old Dad did not die alone—he was with his secret mistress of ten years—and when the dead woman’s daughter (Mills) arrives from England to claim her mother’s body from the same morgue, things get really complicated. Playing Lemmon’s morally uptight businessman against Mill’s slightly neurotic bohemian provides some fertile comedy ground (he’s shocked by the infidelity, she finds it romantic) which Wilder further augments with exaggerated culture clash jokes as a fastidious Armbruster tries to adjust to rural Italy’s more laissez-faire sensibilities. To that end, New Zealand character actor Clive Revill provides the missing link as a harried hotel manager who tries to cover everyone’s tracks while also dealing with an irregular kidnapping, an impromptu murder, and the red tape intricacies of a society wherein getting anything done at all is predicated upon who you know, not what. And it’s all given a sensuous technicolor sheen by sun-drenched backdrops of sea, sky, and swaying palms set to a wistful melody. The laughs may be dated, the shocks dulled, but as a sparkling romantic comedy it’s still thumbs up all the way.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato
(Netherlands et al 2015) (5): In the Fall of 1931, after being rebuked by Hollywood, Russian silent film auteur Sergei Eisenstein traveled to Mexico to film yet another epic bankrolled in part by American author Upton Sinclair and Soviet despot Josef Stalin. While south of the border—or so the story goes—the 33-year old Eisenstein also lost his virginity at the hands (and cock) of his Mexican guide, Palomino Cañedo. British director Peter Greenaway seizes this small footnote in the life of his cinematic idol and turns it into a demented biopic of sorts with Finnish actor Elmer Bäck as the wild-haired Sergei who can’t shut up even when he’s being ploughed from behind, and Luis Alberti as his quietly dapper sparring partner and fuck buddy Cañedo. As if his vision was too big for a humble theatre screen, Greenaway reaches deep into his bag of tricks to pummel audiences with endless cutaways, split screens, and a camera which too often spins in wide orbits whether it be around a breakfast nook or Eisenstein’s lavishly appointed hotel bedroom where he and Cañedo dispense semen and wry observations in equal measure. From their two countries’ respective political revolutions to the revolutionary act of gay sex to the ultimate conquest of death over life, the two lovers’ insights and verbal parries are accompanied by some striking visuals—a display of mummified bodies, a dance sequence with blow-up skeleton dolls, and widescreen snippets from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and October: Ten Days That Shook the World while an orchestra belts out Prokofiev’s “Dance of the Knights”. And in one literally cheeky segment Cañedo plants a red flag squarely on Sergei’s post coital butt (Viva la Revolución!). Unfortunately Greenaway’s personal glee does not transfer well reducing Bäck’s non-stop soliloquies to so much exhausting prattle against a background of arty affectations which grow tiresome from sheer repetition. There are depths to be plumbed here and its sheer audacity reflects on cinema’s ability to inform and confound, but Greenaway’s rush to heap too much onto a single plate had me losing my appetite before the halfway mark.

Summer Wars
(Japan 2009) (6): Pokemon vs Tron in Mamoru Hosoda’s well-meaning bit of fluff which ultimately takes too long to say too little. Roped into posing as a classmate’s fiancé for an uncomfortable family reunion (she wants to impress her 90-year old grandmother), teenaged math prodigy and all around geek Kenji is suddenly called upon to help save humanity when a malicious hacker begins infiltrating Oz, the world’s largest social media network with billions of subscribers and links to everything from Wall St. to nuclear silos. Aided by friends and family—including the feisty grandma and a host of online avatars—Kenji and a rather truculent computer whiz reluctantly prepare to kick some cyber-butt… With anime reminiscent of those old Astro Boy toons and a cast of cute little virtual emoji characters (the squirrel looks like something from Happy Tree Friends, the bunny belongs on Xbox, and the big bad hacker hovers somewhere between a Hindu super villain and the demon from Disney’s Fantasia) there is certainly a bit of retro charm at work. But the story too often gets mired down in familial sweetness and silly plot devices as the message of “People Stick Together No Matter What!” is repeatedly hammered onto our corneas—and those video game showdowns, while colourful, soon begin to loop back on themselves. Children will get the message and then forget it once the disc ejects while older kids will giggle at the cartoon violence and occasional cuss word.

The 400 Blows
(France 1959) (7): Basically good-natured but headstrong and impetuous—some might say “free-spirited”—young Antoine Doinel (breakout performance from future star Jean-Pierre Léaud) is on a collisions course with the despotic school system, his quarrelling parents whose affections for him and each other too often run cold, and the murky French judicial system itself when, out of desperation or boredom (or both) he begins to dabble in petty crime. That about sums up François Truffaut’s debut feature film, considered by many to be one of international cinema’s greatest achievements. But if the storyline seems derivative its execution is a masterful blend of verité camerawork and textured performances which owe a debt to Italian neorealism even as those wide tracking shots and an upbeat score herald the French New Wave. Never stooping to maudlin sentimentality, Truffaut’s camera doesn’t concentrate so much on domestic squalor and dirty alleyways (the Eiffel Tower looms ominously over rows of flats during the opening credits) but on the tenacity of its inhabitants who laugh and bicker, love and cheat, and generally survive—qualities embodied in Antoine no matter where his actions land him, his only concession being the occasional tear staining an otherwise impassive cheek. A telling interview between the boy and an offscreen psychiatrist is both sad and wryly candid (and wholly improvised) while his headlong rush towards whatever future awaits is brilliantly summed up with a simple tracking shot that shouts volumes. With references to literature (Balzac is a personal hero) and the magic to be found at the local cinema wherein Antoine finds a release of sorts, this is a low-keyed piece about a boy facing his impending adulthood with all the temerity that comes from feeling one has nothing left to lose.

Feed the Light
(Sweden 2014) (3): Every now and then I come across a film so imaginatively awful that I can’t bring myself to hit the “eject” button. Such is the case with Henrik Möller’s ultra low-tech sci-fi/horror disaster based very loosely on a story by H. P. Lovecraft. While searching for her missing daughter, single mother Sara winds up in a subterranean maze beneath the streets of Malmö where wild-eyed janitors tend to perpetually flickering light bulbs while fastidiously mopping endless floors, all under the malevolent gaze of a female overseer who keeps a crazy naked man as a pet. Descending deeper into this underground multi-universe (which looks conspicuously like an unfinished industrial parking garage filmed from different angles) Sara eventually uncovers the terrifying secret behind all those faulty light fixtures… Slapdash editing and emotive performances that come across as really bad improv fail to elicit any suspense (or appreciable mystery) and what special effects appear are strictly of the “Film School 101” variety (shadowy bogeymen, blackened eyeballs, squishy rubber heads). Filmed haphazardly in static-ridden B&W with the occasional fountain of chocolate-red stage blood and one passage of psychedelia, Möller does leave us with one notable visual: an extreme rectal close-up which would have brought an appreciative tear to John Waters’ eye. Plays like a hacked version of a much better film.

Watch on the Rhine
(USA 1943) (7): Paul Lukas won his only Oscar playing an impassioned resistance fighter while Bette Davis gave a master class in overacting as his wife in this wartime weeper adapted from Lillian Hellman’s play by Dashiell Hammett. After managing to stay one step ahead of the Nazis by hopscotching across Europe, American-born Sarah Muller and her anti-fascist German husband Kurt return to the safety of her opulent childhood home in Washington D.C. along with their trio of dutiful children (three of the worst child performances you’re likely to see in one film). Welcomed with open arms by her fastidious mother (Oscar nominee Lucile Watson), Sarah and Kurt finally begin to relax even though Kurt’s involvement with the Underground is not quite over. But danger looms on the horizon for Sarah’s mother is also housing another guest, a disposed Romanian count with Nazi ties who poses a deadly complication to the couple’s secret plans… True to its source, this is a highly theatrical movie with action rarely moving beyond the family estate, but in addition to Lukas and Watson’s star performances (and despite Davis’ tearful hand-wringing) a cast of adult supporting actors—Beulah Bondi as a French housekeeper; George Coulouris as the slimy Count Brancovis; Canadian Donald Woods as Sarah’s brother; Geraldine Fitzgerald as the count’s unhappy wife—keep things running smoothly. And Hammett’s passionate screenplay takes the usual morale-boosting homilies inherent in these films and turns them into something far more moving with Lukas and Davis delivering soliloquies aimed directly at complacent American audiences while Hellman’s words highlight the stark contrast between those safely at home in the West and those who’ve already had two World Wars dumped directly onto their doorsteps.

Once Upon a Time in The West
(Italy 1968) (9): Partially penned by giallo maven Dario Argento with music by maestro Ennio Morricone, and then brought together by director Sergio Leone, this is one of the best “spaghetti westerns” ever to emerge from Rome’s Cinnecittà Studios (with gorgeous onsite locations filmed in Mexico, Utah, and Arizona). A young frontier bride (Claudia Cardinale) joins forces with two desperados (Jason Robards, Charles Bronson) in order to exact vengeance on the hired assassin (Henry Fonda putting that squeaky clean image to rest) who, along with his gang, gunned down her husband and stepchildren. But as the plot thickens—involving a crooked railroad tycoon and shifting allegiances—one realizes that everyone involved has secrets they’d rather not divulge. Filmed in long panoramic takes, with flashes of bullet-ridden violence and his signature fascination with tense facial close-ups, Leone celebrates rather than downplays those Wild West archetypes and the result is an arthouse oater where the bad guys really do wear black, the good guys (relatively speaking) wear tan, and the wealthy live in gilt and rococo cages—in this case the ailing tycoon travels in his own elaborate rail car. Vistas of crimson buttes and blue desert skies are bolstered by Morricone’s eclectic score of operatic passages (with the occasional electric guitar riff), and themes of fate and corruption find artistic outlets in the most fascinating ways: a train barrels along the track like destiny itself, images of clocks appear on saloon walls, and divine justice assumes the guise of a simple mud puddle. And that dream cast of A-List actors are consistently on point. Leave it to an Italian to show Americans how to make a cowboy movie…

Spartacus
(USA 1960) (5): Executive Producer Kirk Douglas’ pet project—a 3+ hour epic revolving around the ringleader of a first century BCE Roman slave revolt—was doomed to be an epic mess from the beginning. For one thing, despite their onscreen presence, stars Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton hated each other in real life and most everyone else put in abysmal performances including Douglas who merely parodied himself in the lead role and his love interest Jean Simmons who played a slave girl impersonating an English school matron (Peter Ustinov did deserve his Supporting Actor Oscar however as the pampered owner of a gladiatorial training camp). Tony Curtis, who brought his Bronx accent to the role of houseboy Antoninus, reportedly demanded to know who he had to fuck in order to get out of the picture. Then there’s blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s politically charged script which was accused of being commie propaganda by the ironically titled “League of Decency”, a crass musical score more suited for a rip-roaring Western, and Douglas’ ongoing hissy fits with cast and crew—Stanley Kubrick took over the reins from ousted director Anthony Mann but he’s there in name only for the finished piece bears none of his signature artistry. Historically inaccurate and falling prey to every syrupy Hollywood ploy from soft-focused schmaltz to the now famous “inspirational” scene where a mob of slaves proudly proclaim “I AM SPARTACUS!” to the Roman interrogators eager to identify him for execution, this restored version can only boast an epic battle sequence containing all the gory bits originally censored out and an oh-so subtle attempt at gay seduction between Olivier and Curtis which had also been excised. And this won four Academy Awards (and two more nominations) as well as a place on numerous “Must See” lists? Oh Spartacus…

The Life of Oharu
(Japan 1952) (9): Kenji Mizoguchi’s B&W masterwork is a heartbreaking tale of one 17th century noblewoman’s headlong fall into ruin, her only crime being an independent spirit. Told in flashback as an aging Oharu, now a penniless prostitute, thinks back on her beginnings as a revered Lady-in-Waiting for an esteemed House, Mizoguchi’s slow, beautifully framed film unfolds chapter by chapter with each segment bringing his protagonist yet another humiliation and another loss of stature. Banished from Kyoto for daring to love a man below her station, Lady Oharu goes from being a royal concubine, to a common courtesan, to a lowly streetwalker—victimized at each turn, as it were, by male ambition, female vanity, and a social order which views women as little more than wigged and painted dolls (a fact driven home in an aside involving a puppet show). Even a representative of Buddha himself ultimately casts her back into the street after a gross misunderstanding. Now with her dignity firmly in tatters, karma still has one more blow in store for Oharu and this one may very well be the final straw… Shot primarily in a warehouse due to budgetary constraints, Mizoguchi’s screen adaptation of Saikaku’s Ihara’s novel blends contemporary filmmaking with classic Japanese theatre giving it the intimate feel of a stage production which is further enhanced by rich costume and set designs and a minimalist score of sad ballads and plucked samisens. Using long takes with asymmetrical lighting that highlights every tear and wisp of incense, this is a meditative film whose tragedies go straight for the heart thanks in large part to Kinuyo Tanaka’s brilliant performance as a woman who floats but refuses to sink. Unfortunately, a brilliantly ironic critique of religion (a group of hookers marvel at how many statues of Buddhist saints resemble some of their tricks) is turned upside down for an ending that looks and sounds as if were penned by Frank Capra on Zoloft. A very small glitch however for a movie which deservedly ranks as one of Japanese cinema’s cornerstones.

Neon Bull
(Brazil 2015) (7): Handsome alpha male Iremar (Juliano Cazarré) works the northern Brazil rodeo circuit prepping the bulls and shovelling shit, but he still clings tenaciously to his one true dream—to become a fashion designer. To this end he scours garbage dumps for bits of cloth and discarded mannequins, even doodling ideas over the bare women in porn magazines, while in the background his co-workers have all but given up on their own aspirations… No Hollywood-style underdog story, writer/director Gabriel Mascaro’s slow, lyrical poem of a film never moves far from where it began as Iremar’s days unfold in a heat shimmer of quotidian chores and flights of fancy (a woman dressed in equine drag struts across a red-lit stage like a seductive centaur; a man performs a sensuous pas-de-six with his horse) while everywhere scenes of bulls and humans rutting, eating, and preening side by side—the former penned in by wooden gates, the latter by poverty and ignorance—blur the line between the Keepers and the Kept. While there may be some social overtones (curly vs straight hair provides a bone of contention) Mascaro more or less offers a gentle observance of dreams deferred that mixes classical allegory as when a carnal encounter between artist and muse unfolds (appropriately enough) in a garment factory, and welcome flashes of crude humour—an attempt to purloin prize horse semen will leave PETA members either outraged or reaching for a cigarette. Although other films have drawn parallels between animals and humans (1995’s Angels and Insects compared bugs to English gentry and Iceland’s upper crust was reduced to crumbs in 2013’s Of Horses and Men) Mascaro doesn’t seem to have an ulterior agenda to push which makes his story all the more poignant.

A Woman’s Face
(USA 1941) (8): A remake of an earlier Swedish film starring an unknown Ingrid Bergman, George Cukor’s wonderful Hollywood melodrama provided the perfect vehicle for American stars Joan Crawford and Melvyn Douglas. Embittered against the world ever since her face was disfigured in a childhood fire, Anna Holm (Crawford) has nevertheless made a comfortable life for herself through racketeering and organized crime. But when the kindly doctor (Douglas) whose wife Anna’s been secretly blackmailing heals her facial scars she’s offered a new lease on life. Some scars run deeper than mere flesh however and Anna’s crooked past—represented by her mentally unhinged partner and Svengali-like love interest (an oily Conrad Veldt)—is determined to have her perform one last horrible crime. Told mainly in flashback as a host of witnesses give testimony at Anna’s trial (among them character actors Marjorie Main playing a dour housekeeper and Donald Meek as a mousy waiter) Cukor’s bigger than life tale of redemption through plastic surgery plays on multiple levels both secular (looks really do make the woman) and sacred as the Fallen Angel trope is told in reverse. With faux wintry MGM backlots standing in for Sweden and some impressive effects—a mirrored hallway takes on a psychological edge while a tense sleigh ride calls to mind the chariots of Ben Hur—this is grand old filmmaking at its finest. Douglas is as dapper as ever, and Crawford’s softened features practically glow even as her character spits venom at any show of kindness offered her. An overlooked classic.

Inherent Vice
(USA 2014) (7): Classic film noir gets a psychedelic make-over in Paul Thomas Anderson’s faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, a ridiculously serpentine, drug-tinged whodunnit set in Los Angeles, 1970. When his ex-girlfriend turns to him for help before promptly disappearing along with the married real estate magnate she’d been seeing, drugged-out hippy turned drugged-out private eye Larry “Doc” Sportello (a bleary-eyed Joaquin Phoenix sporting bushy mutton chops) is desperate to solve the case. But his stumbling inquiries will lead him into a murky underground of Asian drug smugglers, Aryan biker gangs, and official corruption which stretches north and south along the California coast and west to Las Vegas. It will also put him on a collision course with his conservative nemesis and alter ego, LAPD detective and frustrated television actor “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin with flat top and Republican attitude), a man’s man who’d rather stomp on faces first, ask questions later… With a plot so convoluted it’s almost a satire unto itself, Anderson’s 2.5 hour comedy/drama epic certainly holds its ground alongside such Neo Noir mainstays as Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Penn’s Night Moves, although it relies more on nostalgia triggers and flashes of dry humour than actual sense. Phoenix is perfect as he trips and tokes while trying to connect too many dots (think Sam Spade reincarnated as the Dude from Big Lebowski ) and Brolin puts his dad’s rugged good looks to the test as the hard-fisted Bjornsen, an odd mixture of macho alpha and henpecked family man with a curious appetite for frozen chocolate-covered bananas. However, it’s the crackling dialogue, retro background tunes, and Oscar-nominated costume design (oh those 70s!) which manage to smooth out the film’s overstretched storyline making Anderson’s evocation of southern California’s palm-studded counterculture all the more believable. Owen Wilson co-stars as a stoned informant with Martin Short as a horny coke-snorting dentist, Reese Witherspoon as Sportello’s uptight D.A. girlfriend, and Benicio del Toro as his rumpled lawyer. Probably best viewed when one is not so…ahem…straight.

Julien Donkey-Boy
(USA 1999) (7): From Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit to Polanski’s Repulsion, actors and directors have tried to film mental illness from the inside out with varying degrees of success. Utilizing rough-hewn film stock (video transferred to 8mm then blown up to 35mm), spastic non-linear jump cuts, and actors willing to heave caution to the wind, Harmony Korine throws his own peculiar hat into the ring and the resultant narrative train wreck—more manic collage than storyline—fascinates even as it assaults. The titular character, a chronically unmedicated schizophrenic who may or may not have killed a child at the movie’s outset, lives in a New York row house with his inexplicably pregnant sister Pearl (Chloe Sevigny), wrestling-obsessed brother Chris, and a grandma who treats her little pooch like a newborn child (Joyce Korine, Harmony’s own gran) all overseen by a tyrannical patriarch (Werner Herzog. Werner Herzog!? ) who uses humiliation and verbal abuse like a lion tamer wields a whip. Using this dysfunctional unit as the film’s only tenuous anchor, Korine lets everything else fly off the handle with reality and fevered delusion, often melding at random leaving us to try and fit the pieces together. “Be a man…” growls dad as he tries to toughen up Chris by spraying him with a garden hose. “You killed the jews…you killed all the mother’s titties…” yells Julien at a poster of Hitler he alternately despises and adores, later having a phone conversation with his dead mom (courtesy of Pearl on the upstairs line). And throughout it all the camera stumbles and arcs, never standing still for long while Korine’s colour palette rarely strays from grainy neons and dirt. Opening with a poorly focused yet ironically serene passage of figure skating set to Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro”, Korine’s film is often painful to watch—a jamboree at the facility for the blind where Julien works comes to resemble the madness in Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut FolliesDonkey-Boy nevertheless carries a few stings especially when the rambling insanity of religion bobs its impotent head: an old-time revival descends into so much gobbledygook and Julien leaves a Catholic confessional (and one bemused priest) behind only to fantasize about a furiously masturbating nun. Although Herzog dominates his every scene whether he’s berating his pregnant daughter or guzzling cough syrup while sporting a gas mask, it’s Scotsman Ewen Bremner who carries the most weight. Meticulously researching his role, and copping a convincing Yank accent, his gripping portrayal of a man drowning in pain is itself painful to watch. The first American film to be certified by Lars Von Trier’s oddball Dogme’95 manifesto, a strict set of cinematic edicts whose artistic challenges too often prove tedious.

Catfish
(USA 2010) (7): New York photographer Nev Schulman begins an online friendship with Abby, a talented 12-year old art prodigy living in northern Michigan, after she does an oil painting of one of his pics. But what starts out as innocent text exchanges turns more intimate when Abby’s older sister Megan takes a shine to him and the two begin exchanging phone calls and sexy emails prompting Nev to travel to Michigan for an impromptu visit. Meanwhile Nev’s brother Ariel and his friend Henry Joost, both budding filmmakers, decide to record the evolving romance after inconsistencies begin to emerge involving Abby, Megan, and their parents Angela and Vince… It’s pretty near impossible to critique Joost and Schulman’s grainy handheld documentary without giving away key points since both the medium and the message are so intertwined. With a running time evenly divided between mumblecore passages seemingly filmed on the fly and electronic screens displaying Facebook pages, a dashboard GPS, and Google searches (even the opening credits feature a roving cursor) it certainly addresses the meta-reality which has emerged with the advent of social media platforms wherein “likes”, “friends lists”, and smiley icons have replaced actual sensory input (or common sense). Unjustly billed as a “thriller”—mostly because of one late night foray into guerrilla filmmaking—what emerges is still highly watchable, though more pathetic than tense, and unfortunately completely predictable. It’s the layers of irony however which won me over, for one gets the feeling that the “documentary” itself is not above suspicion leading Digital Age viewers to further question exactly what the hell is real. “Not based on a true story. Not inspired by true events. Just true” blares the promo, a boast which eventually rings as meaningless as a Youtube clip. Think of it as the “B” side to Courtney Cox’s superior TalhotBlond, released two years later.

Fandry
(India 2013) (8): It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when Nagraj Manjule’s distinctly Indian tale of unrequited teenaged love transitions from wistful romanticism to angry cynicism, but what begins with daydreams does eventually end in something much angrier. Dark-skinned and dirt poor, Jabya nevertheless pines away for classmate Shalu even though the beautiful young woman outranks him in every respect. For Jabya, unfortunately, was born into the lowest rung of India’s lingering caste system and seems doomed to take over the family “business” of demeaning odd jobs including the rounding up of wild pigs which the Hindu villagers are unwilling to touch lest they too become unclean. Desperate to save enough cash for a new pair of jeans with which to impress Shalu, and composing love letters to her every night by the light of a kerosene lamp, Jabya also sets his hopes on a semi-mystical quest—to slay and cremate a very special blackbird for he’s heard that the ashes, when sprinkled on the object of your desire, will cause them to love you in return. Reality, however, has no interest in either magic or a young man’s fancy… Filmed in the dusty hinterland of Maharashtra, with a palette ranging from desiccated ochers to bright carnival balloons all set to a background score of staccato drumbeats, Majule’s downbeat parable employs a troupe of relatively unknown but nevertheless talented actors most notably freshman Somnath Awghade whose awkward mannerisms and husky adolescent voice bring Jabya to full-fleshed life. In this his first full length project as both director, writer, and actor (he plays the compassionate town drunk, a tragic figure in his own right) Manjule shows a remarkable talent for composition, arranging his sets and actors in order to achieve just the right effect whether it be a romantic aside with the setting sun resting in the branches of a tree, or a satirical rebuke when everyone stops for the national anthem—the well-off students in neat rows proudly wearing their spotless school uniforms, the “untouchables” standing awkwardly beside the outdoor latrine. And a scene in which a trussed-up swine is carried past benevolent portraits of historical dignitaries pretty well speaks for itself. Both a tender coming-of-age tale and a bitter critique of injustice shored up by outdated tradition, Manjule has managed to take one of his country’s more insidious social ills and reduce it down to the story of a young man whose eyes are on the sky even though his shoes remain covered in pig shit.

Porcile
(Italy 1969) (2): The bourgeois son of a crooked German industrialist (and possible war criminal) turns his back on human relationships and finds solace in the hooves of a local pig herd. In a tandem story a medieval loner hones his taste for human flesh, slowly gathering a circle of acolytes in the process. Both eventually come to ruin—the former is (literally) consumed by his passion, the latter gets eaten up by the Catholic church. Painting in strokes far too crude and clumsy for effective satire, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s exercise in poor taste is further hampered by a script weighed down with pretentious chinwagging and a slapdash cinematography which looks as if the cameraman was constantly on the verge of tripping over a cable. When even the actors themselves appear baffled by the lines of doublespeak issuing from their mouths you know a rewrite should have been in the offing. A few nicely composed shots nonetheless as a pair of quarrelling would-be lovers discuss ideologies from opposite sides of an ornate pool, and the volcanic wasteland of 1969’s Teorema is revisited although with far less impact. Tedious.

From a Whisper to a Scream
[aka The Offspring ] (USA 1987) (7): Voodoo, necrophilia, cannibalism, and zombies—as well as all manner of inventive bloodletting and dismemberment—are presented for your puerile entertainment in Jeff Burr’s horror anthology which takes the comic book pizzazz of Creepshow and bumps it up to an “R” rating. Interested in covering the backstory of a murderess recently executed in the small hamlet of Oldfield Tennessee, a persistent reporter calls upon the deceased’s elderly uncle (Vincent Price!) and winds up getting more of a scoop than she intended. The old man is convinced that it’s Oldfield itself which is to blame for the killings because the the surrounding countryside has been a repository of evil and madness dating back a hundred years—and to prove his point he regales her with four macabre tales gleaned from the town archives. Muahahaha! Despite its low-budget schlock and overplayed hysterics, Burr and his team of talented writers have nevertheless slapped together a good old-fashioned yarn reminiscent of those Saturday afternoon treats from Amicus studios with a dollop of Eerie Tales magazine thrown in for colour. In the first vignette “Til Death Do Us Part” holds little meaning for a meek office worker determined to win the heart of his lovely supervisor (if you liked Trilogy of Terror’s rampaging Tiki doll you’ll love what comes crawling out from under HIS sofa). “Be Careful What You Wish For” could be the motto of the second tale when a conman on the run stumbles upon the secret for eternal life. And “Ain’t Love a Bitch” resounds throughout story number three after a lovestruck woman runs away with a handsome carnival freak only to discover his contract is more binding than she thought. But it’s the final chapter which proved the most chilling as Burr puts the “gory” in “allegory” to tell the tale of three Civil War soldiers who stumble upon a town populated by orphaned children and ruled by a mysterious Magistrate—a grotesque anti-war parable if ever there was one. If you’re willing to forgive its occasional misstep (the opening execution is worth a rewind) and the tacky 80s touches, this is prime movie night popcorn fare all the way even if Vincent Price ultimately hated it. Welcome to Oldfield!

Amityville: The Awakening
(USA 2017) (4): The fact that it took five years to complete and then suffered through three disastrous release dates before settling for a limited run should give you a clue as to the quality of Frank Khalfoun’s contribution to the Amityville Horror franchise. Unfortunately some of us don’t heed the warnings. Forty years after the iconic New York farmhouse’s demonic presence caused a man to off his entire family—good use of fake news footage—angry single mother Joan (Jennifer Jason Leigh finding a new career low) and her three kids move in just as the demons are getting restless again. But even though sullen goth teen Belle (a sullen Bella Thorne and her panties) suspects something is amiss and cutesy Juliet (Mckenna Grace) finds a bogeyman in her closet, the house seems most interested in their brother James (Cameron Monaghan stretching the special effects budget), a twisted comatose paraplegic hooked up to home life support and the apple of Joan’s obsessive eye. The usual shocks and mayhem ensue as an increasingly agile James leads the family down a rabbit hole so lined with clichés and illogical plot points that even the devil gives up eventually. However effective some of those shocks are—a zombie dog was gross and a mirrored reflection almost made me drop my digestive cookie—they’re all for naught as Khalfoun piles on the silliness with an obscure biblical reference, too many doors and windows slamming open and closed, and a family-unfriendly “climax” which might have been more watchable had the studio not trimmed it down for that coveted PG-13 rating. Setting itself up as a new “true story” of sorts, it also mocks the previous Amityville movies with Belle and her creepy pals watching the James Brolin original on DVD just as the lights go out prompting a trek to the basement fuse box. Glass houses Mr. Khalfoun, glass houses. At least upstate New York looked splendid with the odd palm tree (it was filmed in Long Beach…oops). Maybe they could name the next turkey pile Amityville: Go Back to Sleep Already and be done with it?