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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Children of God
(Bahamas 2010) (8): Kareem Mortimer’s drama—an examination and condemnation of homophobic attitudes in his native Bahamas—gets off to a shaky start with initially unconvincing performances and a B&W script that promises all the usual platitudes. But once cast and crew hit their stride the film reveals an unexpected depth, addressing issues of race, identity, and desire with scenes that range from hard reality to fragile poetry. In the days leading up to a crucial parliamentary vote on equality the island paradise of Eleuthera is anything but as a trio of separate stories converge beneath its calm blue skies. A neurotic young artist comes searching for his muse only to find something more substantial in the arms of a stranger. An anti-gay preacher comes under the scrutiny of his wife, herself a homophobic crusader terrified that their little boy may be a “sissy”. And a lone reverend, still smarting from the death of his child and his wife’s abandonment, tries to sow peace among the thorns. With snatches of fire & brimstone condemnations competing with island rhythms in the background, Mortimer moves his characters with the utmost delicacy—fleshing them out using subtle changes in attitude, letting chance encounters occur naturally, and wrapping his pleas for tolerance in the most ordinary of dialogue. With an eye for colour and texture he also manages to turn Eleuthera’s natural beauty into something quasi-spiritual—the island’s crystal clear beaches becoming baptismal fonts and its lush greenery suggesting a divided Eden. And his cast evolve right along with the movie, those initial flat presentations blossoming into emotional performances which culminate in one of the most affecting final passages I’ve seen in quite some time. “So why you hating faggots so much?” asks one closeted man to another during a washroom hook-up. “I don’t…” the other man replies, “…but you have to give people something to hate. It brings them together.” And with Children of God Kareem Mortimer argues there just might be another option. An unpolished jewel of a film whose rougher edges fail to dim either its message or the sincerity of its author.

Un Flic
[Dirty Money] (France 1972) (4): Four aging thieves stage a cocky daylight bank robbery right in the middle of a raging Atlantic squall. And this opener is arguably the biggest highlight of Jean-Pierre Melville’s final film: a dreary, poorly edited policier in which everyone acts as if they have something better to do. Assigned to solving the case is world-weary detective Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon confusing vacant stares with ennui), a tough nut who’s not above manhandling suspects or slapping the shit out of a transvestite informer. Meanwhile, the equally cynical head thief Simon (French-dubbed Richard Crenna) is hiding out in plain sight—he owns the shabby nightclub Coleman likes to frequent in his off hours. And both men are pursuing the attentions of Simon’s floor manager, blonde femme fatale Cathy (Catherine Deneuve wasting her time and talent). But Simon and his gang have one more big heist planned, a meticulously detailed train robbery they can’t afford to botch even with Coleman picking up their scent… Full of plot holes and unexplained connections—what’s the deal between Edouard, Simon, and Cathy anyway? What murky motivations move these men to commit their crimes? Why is Edouard such a dick?—the movie practically stumbles from one scene to the next with such little regard for flow or continuity (or credibility) that it seems as if we’re watching the truncated version of a much longer, hence more boring, film. And while those climactic scenes on board the train are nicely paced in real time the entire segment is cheapened by the use of toy miniatures (that wee plastic helicopter and Lionel train set aren’t fooling anyone) and “techno” silliness involving a cartoon magnet that would even have Ian Fleming rolling his eyes. Add to that some tired gay clichés—an old queen with a taste for young men, a lovesick drag queen looking like Marlene Dietrich being hauled off to the gallows—and you’re left with a film that wasn’t aging well a week after its release. Some may cite Melville’s use of sombre colours, jazzy music, and pervasive sense of gloomy fatalism as “stylish” but ultimately it’s little more than a smear of icing on a rather stale cake.

Mia Madre
(Italy 2015) (8): Partly autobiographical, Nanni Moretti’s story of one movie director’s ongoing existential crisis shifts between real life and staged drama so seamlessly that they almost become indistinguishable. Celebrated filmmaker Margherita (Margherita Buy snagging a well deserved Donatello) has more on her plate than she can handle. She’s trying to wrap up her latest drama—a sociopolitical piece about angry employees on strike to save their jobs—but her star, an egotistical eccentric from America (John Turturro alternately endearing and exasperating) is having trouble grasping reality himself. Furthermore her daughter has entered into something of a rebellious phase, her love life is in shambles again, and she is not coping with the fact that her terminally ill mother is in a rapid decline…a fact not lost upon her more resourceful brother. For someone so used to controlling circumstances from behind the camera, Margherita is having serious difficulty dealing with life as it unravels without the benefit of rewrites, retakes, and the ability to yell “CUT!” when things become too much to bear. And Moretti mines her dilemma with consummate skill making pithy observations on everything from interpersonal relationships (Margherita’s latest ex gives her a damning report card) to big screen contrivances—in one daydream Margherita meets up with people from her past, including her younger self, as they stand in line for a showing of Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (although Truffaut’s Day for Night might have been more apropos). Both a richly layered paean to the magical folly of cinema and a loving eulogy to mothers everywhere, Moretti also gives a nod to the suffering of the artist—even when it’s self-inflicted.

Giant Little Ones
(Canada 2018) (7): Franky and Ballas have been best friends since they were tots. Now, as highschool seniors, they’re still joined at the hip—competing in the school swim team together, getting into trouble together, and working on losing their virginity (Ballas already has a willing girlfriend, Franky is working on it). But on the night of Franky’s big birthday bash a little too much alcohol and pot leads to some sexual experimentation between the two boys that will change their relationship forever. Riddled with fear and guilt Ballas lashes out with vocal lies and personal denial while Franky—still unable to deal with his dad’s coming out years earlier—begins pondering some difficult questions about himself, a task made even more difficult when rumours begin to fly around the classroom. Too often overbearing, overblown, and filled with derivative clichés, English-Canadian cinema—most notably those “movies with a message”—is not known for nuance which makes this delicate coming-of-age tale from Saskatchewan’s Keith Behrman something of a revelation. Filmed against the suburban greenery of Sault Ste. Marie and graced by an eclectic soundtrack of Techno chords and soft Trance, Behrman’s unadorned script remains largely believable throughout, certainly to anyone who has ever had to sort through their own identity in the scheme of things. Locker rooms can become battlegrounds, friendships can cut to the bone, and the family home can become something less than a quiet refuge and Behrman’s talented cast of young performers respond to this as if by instinct. But this is not a gay film per se even though homophobia does show its ugly face on occasion. It’s more a story about defining oneself with honesty and courage during one of life’s most turbulent periods. Adolescence. There are a few stock characters to be sure—Franky’s friend “Mouse” is a loveable little dyke (possibly trans) who spouts queer-positive maxims, and a horrendous experience in her past has Ballas’ sister philosophizing more than any teenager has a right to—but leads Josh Wiggins and Darren Mann register angst without having to spell it out, Maria Bello does a fine job as Franky’s mom whose awkward attempts to confront her son ring all too true, and Kyle MacLachlan plays the gay dad with such aplomb he gets his point across without the need for a lectern. Lastly, Behrman doesn’t insult his audience with tidy resolutions nor does he insist on pigeonholing his characters into being either this or that. Life is an ongoing exploration fraught with uncertainties and to highlight that fact he concludes with a soft epiphany backlit, quite literally, by a rocket’s red glare.

Crazy Love
(USA 2007) (7): “Fucked up” would be an apt summary of the decades-long relationship between New Yorkers Burt Pugach and Linda Riss who, over the course of their tempestuous entanglement, went from relative obscurity to infamous tabloid darlings and back again. Dan Klores and Fisher Steven’s noirish documentary doesn’t have to dig very deep to hit pay dirt either for their flurry of headlines, ‘70s talk show excerpts, and cynical talking heads (including Burt and Linda themselves) tell the story all too well. When they first met in the late 1950s Burt, a successful, slightly crooked Jewish lawyer from the Bronx was immediately smitten by Linda, barely out of her teens, who sported a classic beauty somewhere between Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren. But the painfully naïve Linda was ambivalent at best which caused the unstable and dangerously obsessive Burt to escalate his attempts to win her favour—then she became engaged to another man causing those attempts to turn shockingly criminal. And that was just the beginning… Klores and Stevens start with the usual background bios—neither Linda nor Burt had particularly happy childhoods and they both suffered from varying degrees of social awkwardness, but whereas her good looks garnered attention he supplemented his geeky appearance by making lots of money—but once the stage is set, what follows is the stuff of tawdry romance novels (or snuff films). Suffice to say their on-again-off-again relationship was closer to an addiction than love with Pugach a monomaniacal Svengali to Riss’ indecisive damsel-in-distress. The devil, however, is in the details and as the directors hit us with one eye-popping revelation after another (no spoilers!) you begin to realize that the old adage, “There is someone for everyone” is not always a comforting thought. As sensationalistic as a Youtube exposé, as ghoulishly fascinating as a post mortem, Klores and Stevens lighten up their freaky fairytale somewhat with a camp background score that includes such hits as “I Put a Spell on You”, “You Call it Madness (But I Call it Love)”, and “Can’t Get Used to Losing You”. Like, crazy man!

The Outlaw Josey Wales
(USA 1976) (8): After Union soldiers murder his family and burn his house to the ground, Missouri homesteader Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood replacing his usual cigar with chewing tobacco) joins a guerrilla unit of Confederate outlaws in order to exact his revenge. Eventually winding up a one-man vigilante, Wales follows the renegade soldiers—who are simultaneously trying to hunt him down—all the way to Texas where a series of encounters will forever change him… Clocking in at over two hours, Eastwood’s wild west odyssey doesn’t skimp on the bullets and bodies, nor does he miss an opportunity to capture the appropriate scenery as cowboys and Indians canter past grasslands, buttes, and dunes. But there is a quasi-spiritual edge to Wales’ quest which was initially born out of a desire for retribution only to become something much more fundamental after he crosses paths with a disaffected native elder (an endearingly fuddled Chief Dan George), a native woman who has learned to shoulder her own pain, a Comanche warrior, and a family of settlers still reeling from their own tragedy. When the final showdown eventually does come to pass Wales will discover that forgiveness, much like vengeance, is a sword that cuts both ways. Despite the usual Western trappings (enough with the tobacco-spitting, yecch) this is a film of unexpected depths with admirable performances—even Eastwood’s affected monotone seems somehow relevant—and a restrained, vaguely military score which earned composer Jerry Fielding an Oscar nomination. Still unusual for the time, the film also imbues its indigenous characters with a sense of humanity far removed from the usual “hollering redskins” of Hollywood’s bygone days—and those key roles are filled by actual native actors: as Wales’ philosophizing sidekick Chief Dan George (Squamish) regularly steals Eastwood’s spotlight, Will Sampson (Creek Nation) brings a sense of dignity to the warrior, and Geraldine Keams (Navajo) exudes a sense of pride and iron resolve without ever speaking a single world of English.

The Widow Couderc
(France 1971) (8): Pierre Granier-Deferre’s adaptation of Georges Simenon’s story drifts across the screen with all the pastoral charms of a Thomas Hardy novel and a splash of transgressive erotica reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence. In the French countryside circa 1930s handsome young vagabond Jean (Alain Delon) finds temporary lodgings on the farm of middle-aged widow Couderc Tati (Simone Signoret). Caring for her aging father-in-law while fending off the aggressive advances of her sister-in-law who lives across the canal and insists that the land belongs to her alone, Couderc could use an extra pair of hands. But Jean’s presence awakens something in the repressed older woman and as their relationship takes on a physical dimension a series of events transpire which threaten to topple any happiness she might have gleaned: the bad blood between her and her sister-in-law takes an ominous turn; her niece, a beguiling Lolita who is already saddled with one child of questionable parentage, catches Jean’s eye; and Jean himself is harbouring a devastating secret… Signoret is her typical radiant self playing a proud yet brittle woman all too aware of her greying hairs even as she dares to open herself once more to the possibility of love. And Delon is perfect as the transient object of her desire—his sculpted body and flashing eyes promising much yet falling short on actual delivery. It’s Walter Wottitz’s cinematography however which raises the drama above the usual kitchen sink tragedy. Jean and Couderc’s story unfolds in a green and russet idyll which seems to run on a different timeline—those vast fields and endless skies becoming increasingly constrained as the real world begins to intrude. And the canal which separates them from the town becomes a telling metaphor with a barge blaring American jazz on its way to a happier place and the lone drawbridge, operated by the sister-in-law, acting as both egress and padlock. A bittersweet period piece graced by two of France’s most celebrated actors, a sweeping visual palette, and a poignant score by Philippe Sarde which proves to be as vital to the story as the scenery itself.

Score: A Film Music Documentary
(USA 2016) (8): As a diehard cinephile I have always been aware of the role music plays in augmenting a storyline, skewing an emotion, or setting the tone for a particular scene. From those menacing three notes in Jaws to the grandiose evocation of Darth Vader in Star Wars, composers have always been a vital part of cinema even during the Silent Era when musicians provided live accompaniment to the onscreen action. In Matt Schrader’s fascinating documentary we actually get to meet some of the creative minds behind those iconic chords and hear what they have to say about a painstakingly creative process that stretches from inspirational idea to full orchestra (or synthesizer). Utilizing everything from pots and pans to native African instruments to iMacs, and spanning every genre of music, film composers have come a long way since the days of lone theatre organists, and the sounds they’ve created have evolved right alongside cinema itself. The artists are a joy to watch—the doc’s talking heads also include critics and a clinical psychologist with an interesting take on the power of music—while a multitude of film clips will make you listen to movie tunes with a newfound appreciation. A must-see for anyone with more than a passing interest in the magic of filmmaking.

Possessor
(Canada 2020) (7): Tasya Vos is a most unusual hired assassin. The shady syndicate she works for has the ability to take over people’s minds via forcefully inserted brain implants thus allowing her to use them like a puppet master—they/she committing the murder then covering up any evidence with a convenient suicide. Already hovering on the edge of psychosis thanks to too many assignments (sharing another’s headspace takes its toll) Tasya runs into trouble when she inhabits the body of a man who is not so easily manipulated resulting in a mental tug-of-war and a pile of collateral damage. In his previous film, Antiviral, writer/director Brandon Cronenberg shared something of his father’s predilection for body dysmorphia and physical mutation. This time around he applies that fascination to a psychological landscape with identity fusion and gender-flipping taking on lurid detail as the struggle between his two antagonists gives rise to grotesque images of melting faces, hallucinatory strobes, and coital nightmares. Primarily filmed in shades of blood reds, frozen blues, and jaundiced yellows with macabre flashes of grisly violence and psychosexual gymnastics (gotta love those “unrated” versions) this is not so much a high-tech thriller as it is a non-stop journey through one female sociopath’s disintegration and rebirth as something potentially even more monstrous. And the fact that the “bad guys” are primarily women while the “victims” are mostly men is a detail that does not go unnoticed. Also apparent is Cronenberg’s ambivalence towards technology and its impact on how we’re evolving: a child’s computer-controlled toy automaton suggests wider implications and a billionaire data miner amasses his fortune by peering through people’s webcams to see what kind of consumer goods they’re buying. In the role of Vos, Andrea Riseborough looks like a younger and more psychotic Tilda Swinton—and that’s a good thing. Her intense multi-layered portrayal of an emotional mutant trying to appear normal is at once pathetic (attempts to bond with her estranged husband and son become an exercise in futility) and chilling when her vacuous eyes stare into a mirror and see another’s face. Christopher Abbot does a fine job as the drone Vos tries to bend to her will, his convincing performance going from cooing boyfriend to frantically conflicted killer with no pause in between. And Jennifer Jason Leigh is perhaps the movie’s biggest monster as Tasya’s boss, a soft-spoken pit viper whose reassuring smiles practically drip poison. Sean Bean also appears in a small but crucial role as a wealthy scumbag with a price on his head. Psychedelic passages meant to highlight mental torment could have been trimmed a bit—all those staccato edits and flashing arc lights become repetitious—but it’s a minor flaw in an otherwise transgressive film that haunts rather than shocks, and seduces even as it repels.

The Front Page
(USA 1974) (7): Caustic satire masquerades as screwball comedy in Billy Wilder’s remake of the classic Broadway play. Set in Chicago, 1929, it follows the thorny relationship between unscrupulous newspaper editor Walter Burns (Walter Matthau) and his veteran ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Jack Lemmon). A notorious cop-killer is scheduled for execution in the morning and Burns wants Johnson to turn the hanging into a sensationalistic headline. Johnson however, sick of the journalistic rat race, is hellbent on leaving the business altogether and marrying his sweetheart (Susan Sarandon). But when the murderer manages a dramatic escape from prison Johnson’s weakness for getting the scoop is tempting him to return to the typewriter one last time and Burns exploits that weakness with every dirty, underhanded trick he can think of. In the meantime Johnson’s fellow reporters, all eager to beat each other to the publishing deadline, are pulling a few deceptions of their own including making up stories based on nothing more than innuendo and imagination—the term “fake news” not having yet been coined. Matthau is a cavalier prick, Lemmon is a ball of neuroses, and when the sparks begin to fly they are augmented by a cast of effective, if somewhat two-dimensional, stock characters: Sarandon’s jilted naif is all taffeta and tears, Harold Gould plays the city’s slimy mayor, Vincent Gardenia gives us a bumbling sheriff straight out of The Dukes of Hazzard, and Carol Burnett is cringeworthy as the condemned man’s hooker girlfriend in an overwrought performance that wouldn’t even have been good enough for her TV show. Austin Pendleton, on the other hand, channels the best of Woody Allen in his portrayal of the bumbling, benign killer who is more concerned about his head cold than he is of the gallows. Showing newspapermen as cynical vultures for whom death and tragedy are simply tools of the trade—this particular case made even more tasty by the fact the dead cop was black—Wilder wrings much humour out of their singleminded zeal to outdo one another. But it is the ambivalent relationship between editor and reporter that holds things together especially when the script slips into slapstick territory after the escaped convict lands right in Johnson’s lap. An entertaining period comedy with some nice visuals and a bit of crusty language—not to mention some tired old gay clichés—that would have shocked original audiences.

Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro
(USA 2016) (9): Tony Vaccaro was barely into his 20s when he was drafted into the US army and thrust into the maelstrom of WWII in Europe. A pacifist at heart, he found some solace in his singleminded passion for photography. Thus heading into battle with his rifle in one hand and his camera in the other Tony amassed thousands of photographs—most taken on the fly, a few clandestinely—which captured the essence of what it means to “go to war” and in so doing turned warfare’s inherent ugliness into something transcendent. In Max Lewkowicz’s documentary Vaccaro himself comes across as a fascinating contradiction of humanist philosopher and detached artist—decrying the carnage of battle yet managing to find grim beauty in the snow-draped body of a fallen soldier—but it is his work that speaks the loudest. An American GI steals a kiss from a grateful child, bodies strew a Normandy beach as if in repose, weary servicemen glance at the lens as if it could see into their souls, and the corpse of a woman raped by a bayonet lies sprawled in a ditch—all rendered in shadowy B&W, some slightly blurred since Vaccaro was literally fighting for his life at the time they were taken. Hovering at the extremes of artistic expression Tony Vaccaro’s snapshots form a stark time capsule alternately warmly familiar and chillingly alien, horrifying yet horrifyingly beautiful. Lewkowicz wisely keeps his talking heads to a minimum—among them curators and Pulitzer-winning photojournalists—and instead gives centre stage to the artist and his pictures. The result is nothing less than riveting.

The New Girlfriend
(France 2014) (8): Still struggling with the death of her lifelong BFF Laura, the somewhat timid Claire (a superbly nuanced turn from Anaïs Demoustier) offers what support she can to Laura’s grieving husband David (Romain Duris, brilliant) who’s been left to raise their baby daughter by himself. But David has a secret life that Laura never divulged to Claire—he has a fondness for make-up, high heels, and pretty dresses—a revelation which the not-quite conservative Claire finds all but impossible to digest. But as Claire and David (calling himself “Virginia” when appropriate) form a hesitant truce, a bond borne of loss and loneliness gradually forms between them, a transformative friendship which proves to be deeper and more problematic than either one anticipated. Yet another gender-fucking dramedy from France’s favourite envelope-pusher, François Ozon, which explores identity, the laws of attraction, and sexual politics using an admittedly outrageous premise as a springboard. The until-now closeted Virginia’s coming out slyly mirrors Claire’s own shifting dynamic and Ozon never misses a chance to inject a bit of ironic laughter along the way—as Virginia’s attitude and wardrobe become increasingly eye-catching Claire’s recedes into uncertainty and dull unisex threads, a shopping trip to the mall is as funny as it is heartwarming, and an interlude at a drag bar sums up the entire movie with a single torch song. Is it any wonder that mirrors play a supporting role? Even Claire’s clueless husband (Raphaël Personnaz’s everyman character providing a much needed anchor) notes the changes in the air while remaining oblivious to their cause. And it all ends on a jarringly ambivalent chord preceded by a bizarre “resurrection” which challenges but never preaches. While some may accuse the film of liberal bias, Ozon’s only real agenda here is to not only stir the pot but make us question the pot itself. Almodóvar couldn’t have said it any better.

Proof
(USA 2005) (6): Robert Llewellyn (Anthony Hopkins) was a brilliant mathematician and professor until a deteriorating mental condition ended his career. Now, on the eve of his funeral, his 27-year old daughter Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a promising academic herself, is facing a number of crises which threaten to overwhelm her. Having put her own aspirations on hold for the past five years in order to care for dad she’s not quite sure how to reboot herself; Harold, one of her father’s grad students (Jake Gyllenhaal), is showing an interest in her which may or may not be genuine, and she’s terrified that she may have inherited the same condition which led to her father’s madness. Finally, just to make matters more dire, her overbearing sister Claire (Hope Davis) has breezed in from New York intent on uprooting Catherine and selling the family home. John Madden’s screen adaptation of David Auburn’s multiple-award winning play is a mixed bag of intense character studies which toy with notions of memory, reality, and interpersonal dynamics as Catherine slowly reconnects with the world of the living. Her deep bond with Robert is revealed through flashbacks and the sporadic waking dream while the antagonistic sparring with her sister and ambivalent attraction to Harold take place in the ice cold here and now. And throughout it all the vagaries of life find a lukewarm metaphor in reams of mathematical formulae—especially one groundbreaking treatise discovered in her father’s desk drawer yet of questionable authorship. Is she losing her mind? Or is she simply adapting to the everyday insanity of living (certainly those banal television snippets suggest the latter). Paltrow does a fine job portraying a brilliant young woman trying to steer her own course despite being blindsided by grief, guilt, and a touch of clinical depression, and Hopkins is all fireworks and obsessive passion in an unwavering performance that provides counterpoint to Paltrow’s own reticence. But Gyllenhaal's puppy-eyed schoolboy doesn’t quite convince as a math prodigy-cum-love interest and Davis’ bossy big sister sometimes plays out like Mommie Dearest only without the claws and fangs. A complex psychodrama that occasionally runs in circles (c’mon Catherine, chin up already) but is saved by a lucid script and a firm directorial hand which keeps things from sliding into pure melodrama.

Zero Days
(USA 2016) (7): Early into the new millennium Iran’s fledgling nuclear energy program was targeted by a rash of assassinations and what was then considered to be the most sophisticated piece of computer malware ever developed. Dubbed “Stuxnet”, it effectively shut down their uranium refinery capabilities, at least temporarily, but it didn’t end there… Who developed Stuxnet and for what purpose occupies the first part of Alex Gibney’s slick documentary in which a platoon of talking heads ranging from cybersecurity experts, former government agents, and investigative journalists point their fingers in the general direction of America and Israel—two nations determined to prevent Iran from developing atomic weapons. The alleged evolution of the virus from planning committee to implementation is the stuff of James Bond films, fascinating to watch yet rendered understandable to any viewer with a bit of brain power and a sufficient attention span. Some assumptions are made, others hinted at, and the three main players are not presented in the best of lights (Obama lied, Netanyahu fear-mongered, Iran’s Ahmadinejad proselytized) but it is the doc’s second half which proves to be the most unsettling. Just like Hiroshima sparked the nuclear arms race, the release of Stuxnet heralded the newest Cold War stand-off in which the threat came not from the skies but from the humble computer outlet. Although not as dramatic as a mushroom cloud, cyber attacks can (and have) crippled economies, wiped out power grids, and scrambled information banks—and there are no international treaties limiting their use, nor could they be effectively enforced even if they existed. With just about every superpower adopting laptops into their defensive—and offensive—arsenal, Gibney paints a disturbing picture in which the omnipresent internet is both a boon and our biggest vulnerability. And this particular clandestine war is going on all around us. It’s enough to make you tiptoe past your PC.

Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie
(USA 2013) (6): Family-friendly novelty to sinful pit of teenaged hedonism, the Drive-In movie theatre went through many transformations since the first one opened in the early 30s. Finding a niche in post WWII car culture and a new generation of pampered little boomers, they reached their zenith by the end of the 50s when there were an estimated five thousand screens across the USA. April Wright’s documentary, truly a work of love, examines the rise and fall of Drive-In Theatres from glittery quasi-amusement park destinations to shabby purveyors of third-rate flicks and porn as their owners tried to weather pressure from land developers and shifting societal mores, not to mention the increasing competition from indoor multiplexes. Interviewing film historians, theatre proprietors, and devotees alike, she gives us a colourful first-hand account of the myriad reasons behind the Drive-In’s meteoric success and sad decline—and possible renaissance?—which will spark nostalgia in anyone who ever sat through a double feature sprawled out in their pyjamas on the backseat of the family sedan. Unfortunately the rapid fire editing doesn’t give you much time to absorb the historical images she provides and her talking heads, although engaging enough, really have no groundbreaking revelations to offer as they share their own fond memories and a little technical trivia. They were truly a cultural icon however, even spawning their own film genre—mention “Drive-In movie” and you’ll conjure up B-movie visions of softcore schlock, fast cars, and rubber monster suits in anyone old enough to remember. And for that reason alone Wright’s well-meaning ode is essential viewing for cinephiles of all stripes.

Patton
(USA 1970) (7): By all accounts American WWII general George S. Patton Jr. was a complex fellow. A true hawk among doves he had a reputation for being stubborn and insubordinate, an inveterate warrior on all fronts. He also attracted much controversy for his gruff demeanour (including a colourful vocabulary) and alleged anti-semitic views—plus his hatred for cowardice got him in hot water when he physically assaulted a pair of soldiers who were suffering from what we would now diagnose as PTSD. Set during the waning years of the war as a frustrated Patton butts heads with everyone from President Eisenhower to his good friend general Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) over how the war in Europe should be fought, George C. Scott’s Oscar-winning portrayal of the man behind the medals is a guts ’n glory biopic that occasionally strays into hero-worship yet never sanitizes the ugliness of battle itself. Winner of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Director, Franklin J. Schaffner’s three-hour widescreen epic features some amazing special effects heavy on military hardware, fiery explosions, and mutilated bodies which are balanced by ersatz B&W newsreels and moments of fierce dialogue as Patton alternately rages against the powers that be and loses himself in quiet contemplation—he was also a poet who believed his warrior soul had been reincarnated over and over again from the battlefields of ancient Carthage to the Napoleonic wars. An oddly melancholic film about a fading soldier (although not shown in the film he died the same year the war ended) whose unorthodox ways and obsessive mindset forever set him at odds with everyone in his life. Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated score provides the perfect accompaniment consisting as it does of muted fanfares and distant trumpets.

Ginger and Fred
(Italy 1986) (7): Federico Fellini sends another love letter to the beautiful chaos that is cinema, only this time it also contains a colourful middle finger pointed directly at Italian TV culture. It’s been more than 30 years since the dance team of Pippo Botticella and Amelia Bonetti (Marcello Mastroianni, Giulietta Masina) have performed together although at one time they were considered Italy’s answer to Astaire and Rogers. Now they’re slated to appear on a popular television show, part of a retro salute, and the culture shock is almost enough to bowl them over. Gone are the Hollywood-style sets and glamorous costumes replaced instead by freaks, geeks, and gaudy spectacle where video announcers peer through television screens like minor deities, scantily clad skanks hawk everything from “sexy” sausage and olive oil to couture shoes and political propaganda, and the only spotlight Amelia can get is the neon strobe light that pierces her hotel blinds. Pippo’s failing health is sabotaging his dance moves, Amelia’s wig is out of date, and their new audience represents a generation barely able to tear themselves away from the warped realities of the small screen. But the show must go on and it does, after a fashion, even though it’s not quite the glorious reunion either one was expecting. Part carnival midway, part Dantean Inferno (an opening sequence places us firmly in the first circle of Hell), Fellini doesn’t exactly give way to despair but amid the swirling costumes, manic dialogue, and tasteless pageantry one can sense his attempt to balance warm nostalgia for bygone days with a cool disdain for contemporary aesthetics. If life is a circus then Ginger and Fred represents a rollicking side trip through the Hall of Mirrors, and the reflections therein provide enough pop culture satire to keep the film afloat.

Alphaville
(France 1965) (5): Despite its lofty premise Jean-Luc Godard’s sci-fi noir—a satirical dystopian downer that could have been penned by Orwell and Dick with a little advice from Kafka and Bradbury—plays out like an unfinished art project. In a faraway galaxy lies Alphaville (looking exactly like 1965 Paris…wink wink), a totalitarian metropolis run by Alpha-60, a computerized tyrant that has outlawed all forms of self-expression—even crying will get you executed by firing squad, your body then thrown into a pool to be stabbed repeatedly by a women’s synchronized swim team (huh?) Into this iron-fisted autocracy comes Lemmy Caution, an American agent decked out in trench coat, fedora, and flash camera, who is tasked with destroying Alpha-60 before it can realize its goal of galactic conquest. But two seemingly insurmountable problems stand in his way: he falls in love with the daughter of Alpha’s evil creator, and he has no idea how one goes about breaking an unbreakable machine with superhuman powers. Godard deconstructs the usual science-fiction tropes using low budget stand-ins: a Plymouth Valiant takes the place of a spaceship and futuristic technology is merely suggested by blinking lights, toy phones, and the disembodied voice of Alpha itself provided by an uncredited actor using an electronic voice box so grating I was tempted to turn the sound off altogether. He then adds a few clever touches such as replacing the Gideon bible in hotel rooms with an official dictionary that is constantly being revised to remove such problematic words as “Love” and “Conscience”. And the industrial settings are pure film noir with impersonal office buildings looking down upon rain-soaked streets and Caution letting his pistol speak for him as he manoeuvres his way through a society of law-abiding automatons made crushingly uniform by Alpha’s pervasive control. Even the characters’ names provide a bit of sardonic irony: Doctors von Braun, Nosferatu, and Heckell ’n Jeckell all get their fifteen minutes. But the editing is too disjointed, the plotting too opaque (perhaps on purpose), and the dialogue—gleaned from the works of Jorge Luis Borges and French surrealist Paul Éluard—too often drifts into arthouse gibberish. Lastly, the distinct lack of anything even remotely resembling special effects definitely marks this as “cinema of the mind” which would probably have played better on the radio. Besides, we’ve already seen mad computers and enslaved populations in countless other sci-fi offerings, and the film’s unoriginal ending will give anyone familiar with E. M. Forster’s novella, The Machine Stops, an unshakeable sense of déjà vu. Look for an underused Akim Tamiroff playing a hapless fellow agent coming apart at the seams thanks to too much enforced conformity.

Oliver & Company
(USA 1988) (8): I admit that whenever I see the Disney logo attached to a production my inner cynic automatically comes to the forefront, and usually for good reason. But this four-legged cartoon interpretation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist set in contemporary Manhattan definitely exceeded my expectations. Frightened and alone on the mean streets of New York, a raggedy kitten (voice of Joey Lawrence) is taken in by a gang of colourful canine ne’er-do-wells and their slovenly yet affable human leader, Fagin. The dogs eke out a living stealing whatever they can and the kitten soon learns the ropes—until Jenny, a lonely little rich girl, takes him in and offers him a permanent home and a name, Oliver. But the dogs and their human are in serious trouble—he owes money to a mob boss who is determined to collect—trouble which soon ensnares Oliver and his newfound owner in a dangerous ransom scheme. The early computer enhanced animation is beautifully rendered in bright watercolours which give each character, animal and human alike, a distinct personality and set of expressions from the regal bulldog Francis (Roscoe Lee Browne) to the lovable slob Fagin (Dom DeLuise), although it’s the edgy Chihuahua, Tito (Cheech Marin) who steals the show every chance he gets. And the Manhattan backdrops are small pieces of art in themselves as they provide the perfect stage for a host of impromptu songs which include the rollicking “Why Should I Worry?” as Oliver and his dog companion Dodger (Billy Joel) cavort through rush hour traffic, and “Perfect Isn’t Easy” belted out by Georgette, Jenny’s snobbish poodle who’s long overdue for a comeuppance (Bette Midler). A couple of snarling dobermans may be a bit intense for the single-digit crowd, as is a deadly confrontation atop a pair of elevated subway tracks, but rest assured there’s a happy ending for everyone who deserves one. And with a running time of only 75 minutes it’s easily digestible for all but the most hardened of skeptics.

Holiday Inn
(USA 1942) (7): An instant Yuletide classic as well as the inspiration for an entire hotel chain, Paramount Pictures’ fluffy distraction is as timeless as a Christmas snow globe and just as trite. Crooner Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) and dance man Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) enjoy a great stage career together but unfortunately women keep getting in the way—notably mutual love interests and fellow hoofers Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) and Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale). But when Hardy decides to quit the team and turn his rural Connecticut farm into an exclusive nightclub which only opens on holidays their amorous rivalry threatens to bring down the house with both men pining like lovestruck adolescents for Miss Mason until Miss Dixon shows up with her dancing shoes in hand (Mason-Dixon….LOL!). The acting is average at best—neither Crosby nor Astaire were ever convincing as romantic leads—and the storyline involving two jealous men trying to steal the affections of a clueless woman is hardly original (or grown-up) but thankfully it’s not the plot which attracts viewers. The quaint stage decorations and wintry New England sets (complete with asbestos “snow”) form a charming backdrop for some amazing song and dance numbers. Crosby sings a host of Irving Berlin classics including “Easter Parade” and the Oscar-winning “White Christmas” while Astaire dazzles us with solos and duets culminating in a famous Fourth of July routine where he trips the light fantastic while hurling lit firecrackers at the dance floor. There’s also a gushing tribute to America, “Song of Freedom”, made palatable when you consider WWII was still raging overseas, and a blackface routine, “Abraham”, is so appalling that 80 years later it’s almost comical. Director Mark Sandrich also adds a touch of the surreal when a production company, eager to cash in on Hardy’s successful venture, decides to recreate the Holiday Inn on a soundstage thus giving us a touch of “movie within a movie” when his characters come face to face with Hollywood artifice. Oh the irony!