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 Diary of a Teenage Girl
(USA 2015) (9): “I had sex today…holy shit!” Thus begins the secret tape-recorded diary of fifteen-year old Minnie Goetz (22-year old Bel Powley) who’s just lost her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). But this is San Francisco and it’s 1976 and mom (Kristen Wiig) is a coke-snorting Bohemian with enough problems of her own to not notice the fact that Monroe has begun dipping his stick in her daughter’s tank. At least until she finds the box of cassettes… No, Marielle Heller’s screen adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel is not a lurid potboiler about statutory rape and ruined lives but rather it traces the journey of one remarkable young woman as she manoeuvres her way through that emotional minefield called adolescence, and it does so with flashes of unexpected humour and a no-holds-barred candour sure to ruffle conservatives everywhere. Bel Powley’s pouty features and perpetual wide-eyed expressions perfectly capture the essence of what it means to be fifteen, horny, and awkward—her giggly girlish forays with best friend Kimmie offset beautifully by taped passages which transcend age and gender to stir up our own memories, both old and fresh. ”It feels like there are little weights hanging from my heart that swing and tug every time I move, every time the wind blows…” her diary reads while she assesses her naked body in a mirror and finds it wanting. Already a gifted artist, Minnie’s journey is punctuated by her Aline Kominsky-inspired ink drawings which Heller brings to animated life at just the right moments whether it be pre-coital butterflies scattering from her hair or an older, wiser Kaminsky offering up sage advice as she floats beside her down a busy street. Understandably, as this is told from the viewpoint of a teenaged girl just beginning to flex her sense of independence, the adults are more or less clueless with mom easing the pain of growing older with pot and partying, the ex (Christopher Meloni) trying petulantly to intellectualize everything, and Monroe himself a bag of neuroses which only becomes apparent when he and Minnie drop LSD (she imagines herself flying, he sees monsters in the window). And Abby Wait, in a small but crucial role as Minnie’s younger bespectacled sister, is there to provide the innocence against which everyone else is measured. Kudos as well to the art, costume, and set design crews who evoke a hazy golden vision of disco era San Francisco that would make Armistead Maupin himself feel homesick. A disarmingly honest, semi-autobiographical memoir featuring a self-imagined heroine who is both resilient and terribly naïve—a brush with drug culture films like a nightmare and her skewed body image sounds all too familiar. Refusing to either pass judgement or edit itself, the movie’s carnal passages are unapologetic as Minnie experiments with her newfound sexuality (first as a failed panacea for loneliness then as a route to self discovery) and the personal growth which underpins it all unfolds naturally and without hyperbole. Refreshingly free of soapboxes, rhetoric, and bombast, this is a simple tale of one young female skipping and stumbling towards maturity and as such it provides a fine example of what feminist cinema can look like. It’s about fucking well time too!

Fallen Angel
(USA 1945) (5): The angel in question is con man Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews) who breezes into a small California town one night and immediately becomes smitten with slutty waitress Stella (Linda Darnell), a man-eater whose already had every guy in town—chaste and fully clothed of course, 1940s style—yet secretly yearns for that one special sugar daddy to give her a ring. With only a dollar in his pocket Stanton is going to have to up his game if he’s ever going to win Stella and that’s where local heiress June Mills (Alice Faye) comes in. Wooing the naïve June in order to get his hands on her bucks, Eric sets in motion a deadly love triangle which can only end in disaster… Despite a stellar cast which also includes John Carradine as a fake medium, a pushy Charles Bickford as Stanton’s romantic rival, and Anne Revere as June’s spinsterish sister who can smell a rat before he even gets off the bus, director Otto Preminger’s noirish melodrama never rises above the prosaic with its threadbare plot and a script that fizzles more than it sizzles. Lacking both the erotic tension and air of menace so important to the genre, Preminger’s main characters are mere cutouts pigeonholed into either good or bad—Darnell’s midnight tresses and smokey eyes contrasting rather self-consciously with Faye’s sunshiny curls and blank-faced virginity. Unimaginative despite a little twist at the end and devoid of any onscreen chemistry, this is strictly paint-by-numbers Film Noir for beginners.

Halloween
[aka Rob Zombie’s Halloween] (USA 2007) (6): Written by Rob Zombie? More like plagiarized scene for scene from John Carpenter’s original 1978 shocker about little Michael Myers who gets committed to an insane asylum after murdering his family only to escape fifteen years later so he can continue where he left off. Zombie does spend a little extra time exploring ten-year old Michael’s horrible formative years (mom’s a stripper, sister’s a slut, dad’s a violent buffoon) as well as his early days in hospital where he developed his signature fetish for masks and knives, but once the killings start in earnest it’s pure 80’s slasher cinema with blood and tits and screaming teenagers screwing on the couch (as per an unwritten genre rule, only bad girls get gutted). Malcolm McDowell plays Michael’s compassionate psychiatrist with a great deal of geriatric gusto while Scout Taylor-Compton gives a passable Jamie Lee Curtis imitation as the histrionic object of Myer’s murderous affections, but it is the team of Daeg Faerch playing young Myers and Tyler Mane as the adult which save the film from total obscurity. Faerch, only twelve at the time, brings a tween sullenness to his role with a pair of intense eyes staring from beneath a fall of stringy blonde locks while Saskatchewan native Mane, at 6’ 8” and with a wrestler’s build to match, makes for one sexy psychopath. Nice soundtrack too with the likes of Iggy Pop, Kiss, and Blue Oyster Cult giving the film a sense of being suspended in time. Still no match for the original however.

Frank
(UK 2014) (4): Songwriter wannabe Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) is stuck in a permanent creative roadblock when a fortuitous seaside encounter lands him a gig playing keyboards for an eccentric American alt-rock band with an unpronounceable name. Presided over by lead singer “Frank” (Michael Fassbender) an enigmatic performance guru whose face is permanently hidden beneath a huge papier-mâché robot head, the group heads to Ireland to record their first album at a secluded cabin-cum-madhouse where inner demons and artistic muses are given full rein (sex, fisticuffs, and a viking funeral intrude upon rehearsal time) while Burroughs secretly records it all for his growing social media audience. But when Jon’s personal dreams of fame and fortune leads to a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the obscure band to perform at SXSW in Austin, Texas, the newfound notoriety has disastrous consequences for an already mentally fragile Frank and his troupe of social misfits… Loosely based on the career of British comedy character Frank Sidebottom (Chris Sievey 1955-2010) who also wore a Mardi Gras head as part of his schtick, Lenny Abrahamson’s arty-farty paean to artistes and poseurs alike confuses clunky metaphors with dramatic depth leading to a host of emotive performances that go nowhere and comedic passages which offer little levity. Frank’s entire band is self-consciously unorthodox (one rapes mannequins, one only speaks French, one regularly lashes out physically—an irritating Maggie Gyllenhaal) as if idiosyncrasies alone are enough to convey creative impulses, and the idea of popularity destroying artistic integrity is so old it’s become something of a movie cliché—gee, I guess we all hide behind one mask or another!! Furthermore, the fact that Abrahamson’s cast played their own instruments is hardly noteworthy when you listen to the resulting cacophony of grunge racket and mumbled word salad although Fassbender tries his best to add life to the lyrics using body language alone. A kind of crap Cinderella story with a mental health chaser told in reverse that’s sure to wow Liberal Arts students and budding auteurs who still believe “quirky” is always a good thing.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe
(UK 2016) (8): The father and son coroner team of Tommy and Emile Tilden are in for a rough night when the sheriff brings them the body of an unidentified woman found half buried at the scene of a multiple homicide. Remarkably pristine and with no obvious signs of trauma, the corpse of “Jane Doe” presents something of an enigma—especially once the autopsy gets underway. From the very first incision the Tildens are caught up in a terrifying mystery as the woman’s body yields one macabre secret after another from strange packets to impossible mutilations. Meanwhile a vicious storm is brewing outside and the lab's FM radio has started picking up some very unusual stations. And then the lights go out… Norwegian director André Øvredal’s first English language film is a master class in skin-crawling horror and suspense which mixes hefty doses of explicit gore (cinematographer Roman Osin’s camera crawls right inside Jane Doe’s rib cage) with terrors barely seen (what exactly is that thing shuffling down the dark hallway?) With the special effects team conjuring infernal firestorms and prosthetic innards, screenwriters Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing keep everything on track with a tight script that contains some welcome curveballs and only a few genre tricks—beware the close-up and never ever peer through a hole in the wall. Kudos to Scotsman Brian Cox as the elder Tilden who produces a passable midwest accent and Olwen Catherine Kelly who, as a most convincing cadaver, had the hardest part of all simply lying naked and still on a cold slab. In 2010’s The Troll Hunter, Øvredal made an old-fashioned monster movie which tickled the funny bone even as it sent the occasional chill down your spine—with Jane Doe he bypasses the bones altogether and grabs you straight by the guts. Definitely not one to watch alone.

Hidden
(USA 2015) (7): The plot of this End of World thriller from the Duffer Brothers is so overdone it’s almost a running joke: a lethal virus that turns people into something else puts an entire town under government quarantine but one family manages to find a hiding spot from where they play a deadly game of cat and mouse with roving bands of unseen monsters. But the Duffers put a little spin on the zombie apocalypse theme which, while not entirely novel, still managed to add a bit of freshness. The family in question—Ray, Claire, and daughter Zoe (an intense Alexander Skarsgård, Andrea Riseborough pre Mandy coma, and Emily Alyn Lind mercifully less bratty than Dakota Fanning)—are living in an old underground fallout shelter where rationed canned goods and a strict code of conduct (the significance of which is only revealed later) have kept them going for almost a year. And then a series of unfortunate events conspire to threaten their continued existence and put them at the mercy of the “Breathers”, partially seen bipeds with glowing eyes and voices like Jurassic Park raptors with bronchitis who prowl the ash-covered ruins above… Combining elements of 28 Days Later with 2001’s The Others, there is a depth to this family in peril as they love and squabble their way through interminable weeks below ground. Filmed mostly on a cramped bunker set where candles and oil lamps highlight flaking concrete and dusty bunk beds, the Duffers elicit believable performances from those opening scenes of mundane domesticity to a frantic screaming climax and beyond. Of course, with these kind of movies you must put your critical thinking on pause and the directors certainly push that envelope a few times—a talking doll scene was almost too much and we’re not given much background information as to how this plague came about or where it’s heading, but that might have been deliberate. Thankfully, flashbacks to sunnier times (hello North Vancouver!) are kept to a minimum and do provide enough backstory to make us appreciate the bittersweet ending when it comes.

Closet Monster
(Canada 2015) (7): Reality and make-believe vie for centre stage in Stephen Dunn’s capricious drama, an odd little coming-out story whose arthouse flourishes both keep it afloat and occasionally threaten to sink it entirely. Nine-year old Oscar Madly (get it?) is traumatized one summer by two separate occurrences: his mother walks out leaving him mostly in the care of his emotionally labile father; and he witnesses a vicious gay-bashing carried out in the local cemetery. Years later, a teenaged Oscar (beautifully layered performance from Connor Jessup) has set his sights on moving to New York City to study special effects make-up when his adolescent hormones are thrown a curveball in the form of fellow hardware store employee Wilder, a Montreal transplant whose smooth pecs and flirtatious mannerisms has Oscar banging on the closet door. But you can’t easily dismiss a lifetime of psychological abuse and the internalized homophobia it engenders, so when Oscar’s breaking point is finally reached it proves monumentally bittersweet indeed… Only twenty-six at the time, writer/director Dunn set out with a firm vision and enough chutzpah to almost pull it off. Making the tumultuous emotions of a closeted young man manifest on screen isn’t an easy task and Dunn pulls a few clever cinematic rabbits out of his hat in an attempt to do so—false faces abound as Oscar practices his make-up techniques on himself, his dad, and his BFF Gemma (a struggling wannabe model); nascent queer lust is given an edge of horror with some imaginary yet graphic body mortifications à la David Cronenberg; and Oscar’s inner dialogue is rendered a two-way conversation with his talking hamster Buffy (voice of batshit Isabella Rossellini), a sage rodent with a few gender issues of its own. When it works it sweeps you up in a moving, emotionally raw psychodrama powered by wishes and nightmares. But when it falters you’re left with so many film school conceits and empty pockets of air—for one thing Oscar’s petulant rage against the parents isn’t supported by dad’s few hissy fits or mom’s lacklustre nurturing skills, and Dunn relies a wee bit too much on slo-mo passages of emoting and staccato flashbacks. “If you don’t hate your parents you’ll become them…” says Wilder one night and although his advice seems unrealistically harsh the theme of having to move away in order to move forward resonates. The backdrops of Newfoundland and Labrador are gorgeous too (cliffs and restless seas always provide good metaphors) and that chill soundtrack of indie songs is impeccably chosen.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie
(UK 2016) (6): Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley dust off their AbFab characters for another go in this vaguely disappointing farce framed for the big screen but written for the telly. When her list of clients begins to dry up and an autobiography deal goes sour, fashion PR maven Edina Monsoon (Saunders, as loud as her clothes) tries to snag a recently agent-less Kate Moss with the help of her coke-snorting slag BFF Patsy Stone (Lumley decked out in cigarette, sunglasses, and up-do). Unfortunately, all she manages to do is earn the wrath of an entire nation when she accidentally knocks Moss into the Thames after crashing a swank industry soiree. With the supermodel presumed drowned and the press calling for her head, Eddie and Patsy hightail it to the French Riviera with her teenaged granddaughter in tow. Now doggedly pursued by both the police and Eddie’s irate daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha still mousy only greyer) the two flamboyant fugitives will face a champagne-soaked uphill battle all the way… The panoramic views of downtown London and sunny Nice are beautiful and the list of fashionista cameos are as long as your arm—besides Moss herself we’re treated to walk-ons from the likes of Stella McCartney, Jerry Hall, and Jean Paul Gaultier with Pierre Cardin opening the doors to his futuristic hilltop mansion. But aside from Saunders and Lumley’s manic performances the material sags under the weight of all those personalities causing you to go from “OMG!” to “Oh look, it’s Perez Hilton, Joan Collins, and Dame Edna…” To be fair, the two leads are in fine form despite the intervening 25 years and the original cast members manage to reignite something of the old chemistry—not to mention the fashion industry being more than willing to laugh at itself—it’s just that the shock value has worn thin and the characters have become so predictable they’re something of a self-conscious cliché. Eddie and Patsy get shit-faced with a bong, Eddie’s daffy assistant “Bubble” (Jane Horrocks) still spouts vacuous non-sequiturs, and magazine editor Magda (Kathy Burke) continues to spit and growl. Even a sadly despairing monologue by Saunders on growing old, fat, and irrelevant (while bobbing about in Pierre Cardin’s pool) only serves as a lead-in to yet another schtick while a gender-popping finale is more or less lifted from Wilder’s Some Like it Hot. With a quarter century gap you’d expect something more than a storyline as old and tired as its protagonists.

Z
(France 1969) (10): “Any similarity to real persons and events is not coincidental, it is INTENTIONAL” blares an opening title card in Costa-Gavras’ angry political polemic based on a 1963 Greek assassination (though Greece is never mentioned), and he certainly wastes little effort trying to protect the identities of those involved. After two leftist ministers are savagely attacked—one fatally—by hired thugs during an anti-war protest all levels of government immediately start pointing the finger in every direction but their own. The ruling conservatives distance themselves, the police and military forces throw up one red herring after another, and the accused themselves try to hide behind some powerful friends. But as the attorney hired to investigate what the police insist was nothing more than a drunken hit and run accident begins to wade through the conflicting evidence and testimonies a picture of deep-seated corruption, with or without foreign influence, begins to emerge… Opening with an agricultural seminar on how to eradicate crop mildew that suddenly turns into a right wing rant when an attending general takes the mic and likens leaf blight to the dangers of “commies” and long-haired radicals on a stable, god-fearing country, Costa-Gavras eschews subtlety and goes right for the jugular in a relentless broadside which casts its net from the nation’s highest office to the biased press to individual families whose political leanings are more related to selfish gain than any idealism—one man even beats up activists for the government simply to make his car payments. Quick staccato editing and jumping timelines alternate between tragedy and outrage with the occasional moment of sardonic farce providing a bit of levity such as when harried politicos try to bully their way past a phalanx of photojournalists. And throughout it all Costa-Gavras slowly builds his case, ending on a note of pure cynicism as an offscreen narrator critiques the resulting criminal trials and the wave of social sanctions which followed in their wake. Winner of 1968’s Best Foreign Language Oscar (and nominated for the coveted Best Picture category) Z contains an international who’s who of screen stars with standout performances from Jean-Louis Trintignant as the prosecutor, Pierre Dux as a blustering egotistical general, Renato Salvatori as a witless assassin, and Greek legend Irene Papas as the bereaved widow—her stone features and bedside anguish providing the film with extra ammo.

Hang ‘Em High
(USA 1968) (5): A case of mistaken identity almost gets ex-lawman Jed Cooper (Clint Eastwood) killed at the hands of an angry lynch mob. Now intent on revenge, Cooper once again dons the badge and sets out to even the score as a newly appointed Marshal. But vengeance and justice are two very different animals, a fact that becomes quite clear when Cooper comes up against an overworked judge who prefers to hang first and ask questions later (Pat Hingle), and a lovely widow harbouring her own thirst for revenge (Inger Stevens). New Mexico and an MGM backlot stand in for the lawless wilds of old Oklahoma in Ted Post’s straightforward western which is heavy on the camerawork—lots of swinging nooses, sagebrush desert, and close-ups of Eastwood’s squinty eyes—but falls short of the morality play it was clearly meant to be. Aside from Pat Hingle’s animated presence plus a short but amusing turn on the gallows from veteran character actor James Westerfield and Ed Begley’s dead serious role as the head vigilante, everyone else turns in clunky performances especially Stevens whose tragic sorrow only goes skin deep and Eastwood who was just perfecting his immovable face and menacing monotone. Look for cameos from the likes of Alan Hale Jr., Dennis Hopper, and a very young Bruce Dern because there isn’t much else of note.

The Little Stranger
(UK 2018) (7): In its heyday, Hundreds Hall manor was the grandest estate in its little corner of England and ancestral home to the illustrious Ayres family. Now fallen on hard times in the new reality of post WWII England, the three remaining family members—matriarch Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) and her surviving adult children: the badly disfigured Roderick and taciturn Caroline—eke out a living in a mansion slowly succumbing to neglect and disrepair. Having grown up a poor child in the shadow of Hundreds Hall, young Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) has always been strangely drawn to the stately old mansion ever since he visited it for an ill-fated birthday party in 1919. And now, even though his attachment to the estate involves caring for Roderick who appears to be losing his mind (he swears something evil is roaming its musty hallways) and a budding romance with Caroline who meets his advances with a troubling ambivalence, his fascination with Hundreds Hall has turned into an obsession. But as time goes on and things do indeed start going bump in the night—things associated with little Suki Ayres who died several years earlier—Faraday is torn between his medical pragmatism and the family’s conviction that there is a supernatural malevolence bent on destroying them all. Based on Sarah Waters’ novel, director Lenny Abrahamson has turned out an intriguing bag of sad romance, dour satire, and gothic horror tinged with madness which turns the old Haunted House trope on its ear. Everyone is suitably reserved and dapper like an episode of Upstair/Downstairs with ghosts, and the interior shots certainly set the mood with their decaying rococo and faded murals glimpsed through clouds of dust motes. But with the good stuff reserved for the final third of the film, Abrahamson spends so much time providing backstory and cloaking everything in a shroud of depressed fatalism that he forgets to provide something solid for his audience to chew on while they wait. Lastly, that final reveal though hardly shocking considering the plethora of none-too-subtle clues dropped along the way, does provide a twist spooky enough to make Edgar Allan Poe crack a smile.

Irma La Douce
(USA 1963) (5): Home to whores, hucksters, and general riff raff, the denizens of Paris’ “Rue Casanova” red light district enjoy a relatively carefree life thanks to a time-honoured system of official bribes and generous kickbacks to the local constabulary. So it’s understandable that when naïve rookie Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon), perhaps the only honest policeman in France, singlehandedly decides to raid the area’s hotel of ill repute his adherence to the Law winds up getting him unemployed. Now wandering the boulevard he once patrolled, Nestor falls in with headstrong streetwalker Irma La Douce (Shirley MacLaine) and goes from being her lover to being her jealous “business manager”. Unable to stand the thought of Irma being with all those other men however, Nestor eventually hatches a harebrained scheme designed to keep her on the straight and narrow even if it kills him. Pandemonium ensues. Notorious at the time for its ribald innuendo and almost-nudity—very PG by today’s standards—Irma is perhaps more troubling these days for its depiction of happy-go-lucky prostitutes being joyfully exploited by their charmingly violent pimps (sometimes a slap IS just a slap). But politically incorrect transgressions are the least of its problems for despite an amazingly intricate backlot set and the star power of MacLaine and Lemmon plus legendary director Billy Wilder at the helm, this spoken word adaptation of Alexandre Breffort’s stage musical just isn’t very funny—and with a running time of almost 150 minutes it’s not very funny for a very long time (that storybook ending alone pushes the envelope past ridiculous). Described by MacLaine herself as “crude and clumsy” despite her Best Actress nomination, the comedic stretches are tediously overplayed by a cast who rarely rise above the emotional depth of paper dolls. Both hookers and pimps ply their trade with obvious glee while Nestor and Irma alternately spit and spoon and the local bartender-cum-philosopher (Lou Jacobi) gives the film its central theme with his streetwise musings— apparently you have to accept life for what it is and not what you’d like it to be. Personally I would have liked this much-touted classic film to be better than it actually was. Alas.

Gold Diggers of 1937
(USA 1936) (6): By hook or by crook the show must go on in this addition to the Warner Brothers Gold Diggers series of musicals. Cash-strapped chorus girl Norma and her cocky insurance salesman boyfriend Rosmer (Joan Blondell and Dick Powell, both as cute as newborn puppies) become unwitting accessories to a life insurance scam when Broadway mogul J. J. Hobart (a scene-stealing Victor Moore) is tricked into taking out a million dollar policy by his crooked partners. It seems the partners secretly squandered Hobart’s fortune on shady investments and now they’re counting on the aging producer, already a neurotic hypochondriac, to kick the bucket sooner than later—with a little help from them if need be. But the clueless Hobart is too busy organizing his latest stage extravaganza to notice anything amiss and once Norma and Rosmer discover the partners’ evil plot they do everything they can to make sure J. J.’s show is a box office success. With a plot so thin you can see right through it and songs that are forgettable before they even finish, this is definitely one of the weakest links in the series despite Moore’s vaudevillian antics and the combined glitz of its two star-crossed leads. The film ultimately does rise above sheer mediocrity thanks to a couple of show-stoppers choreographed by the legendary Busby Berkeley himself: a swank country club soiree turns into a camp revue when co-star Lee Dixon straps on his tap shoes, and a grand finale has white-clad starlets doing a meticulously synchronized dance routine involving spinning flags and giant rocking chairs. It’s a tinsel town sundae for sure, but it could have used a bigger cherry.

Edge of Tomorrow
(USA 2014) (6): When evil aliens attack the Earth, Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) does his best to stay out of the line of fire. A pacifist who can’t stand the sight of blood, he’s content to head the media division of the US Military—until he’s railroaded into battle by an unscrupulous General. Now finding himself on the war torn shores of France with a platoon of high-tech jarheads, it’s only a matter of minutes before the wholly unprepared Cage gets himself killed. And then wakes up to relive the whole experience once more. Caught in a mysterious time loop which sees his life rewind itself by 24 hours every time he bites the bullet while everyone around him relives their own day seemingly oblivious, Cage must make sense of his new reality before it drives him crazy. Enter Special Forces agent Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) and cockeyed physicist Dr. Carter (Noah Taylor) both of whom just might have a troubling solution to Cage’s quandary… First the good news: director Doug Liman has made the archetypal “Summer Blockbuster” with appropriately awesome special effects and lots of stuff blowing up in teeth-rattling stereophonic sound. Meanwhile, against those green screen backdrops of London under siege and Paris in ruins, Cruise and Blunt manage to produce a likeable chemistry which morphs into an awkward romance (how do you woo someone who has to shoot you in the head in order to reboot each time you get into trouble?). But there is nothing fresh to offer here nor is the central premise—itself full of logical conundrums—particularly novel. Although based on a Japanese manga, Liman borrows rather heavily from too many obvious sources: Groundhog Day immediately comes to mind as does the gung-ho testosterone and armoured body suits of Starship Troopers. Then there’s the aliens, looking like spinning balls of angry yarn, who bear more than a passing resemblance to the jiggly squids from The Matrix. And Liman ends it all with a stretch so outrageous you have to give him credit for sheer chutzpah if nothing else. An entertaining no-brainer the first time around but not worth revisiting

Foxy Brown
(USA 1974) (7): After her undercover narc boyfriend is gunned down by a Los Angeles mob boss, Foxy Brown (Pam Grier letting her afro and 36Ds do most of the talking) poses as a high-end escort in order to infiltrate the syndicate and exact her revenge. But when her plans begin to unravel she decides to even the playing field by recruiting a neighbourhood vigilante group and that’s when things go from bad to badass… As the resourceful pistol-packing femme noire, Grier proves time and again why she is the undisputed queen of blaxploitation flicks—her acting may be wooden and those Kung Fu moves a little hammy but she compensates by doling out pure onscreen sass not to mention a closet full of slinky 70s-style wigs and wraps. Filled to the rafters with gratuitous tits and corny one-liners (“The darker the berry the sweeter the juice, Honey”), writer/director Jack Hill spices things up even further with a couple of wonderfully violent non-sequiturs including a man reduced to chop suey by a spinning airplane propeller and my personal favourite, a smack-down barroom brawl involving a gang of butch dykes. With the good guys composed of jive-talking brothers and the bad guys mostly uptight WASPs in cheap suits the acting is likewise cardboard and clichéd—Kathryn Loder is especially mediocre as mob boss-slash-madam Katherine Wall (yay female empowerment!) as her expressions run the gamut from pout to frown—but Hill never set out to make Citizen Kane. The result, however, is still a classic in its own right.

Water Drops on Burning Rocks
(France 2000) (6): French bad boy François Ozon channels Buñuel and Almodóvar, with a twisted bit of Bergman, into this gender-defying sex comedy, itself based on an unpublished play by a 19-year old Rainer Werner Fassbinder. After an evening of board games, innuendo, and alcohol, fifty-year old German businessman Léopold manages to seduce twenty-year old Franz even though the younger man is supposedly engaged to Anna. One month later the two have settled into boring domesticity with Léo showing his true stripes as a sexual Svengali who seduces and devours before finally corrupting his prey and Franz reduced to a petulant doormat. Then Anna comes a-knocking with the goal of winning Franz back into her arms—a situation which not only turns the young man’s sexual ambivalence into a psychological maelstrom but offers much cynical amusement to his older benefactor. But when Léo’s emotionally needy ex-lover (a woman with a secret) makes an appearance the resulting ménage à quatre causes an already addled Franz to take extreme measures. Right from the opening credits and their kitschy postcard views of Berlin overlaid with French accordion muzak, the stage is set for a transgressive soap opera of sexual uncertainties which starts out light before treading into darker territory without ever removing that damn tongue from its cheek. Taking place entirely within Léo’s garish 70s apartment the film is divided into four acts as per its theatrical roots with each act devoted to one character’s introduction to Léo’s twin mattress. Studied at times—people stare out of separate windows or else appraise their fractured images in bedroom mirrors—and one musical number would seem more at home in a John Hughes opus, but Ozon manages to keep things just this side of outright farce. Like the title suggests, that which we call “Amour” too often sizzles and pops before quickly dissipating into thin air and what’s left—at least for this quartet—is more padded cell than loving home.

The Crucifixion
(UK/Romania 2017) (2): In 2004 a young Romanian nun, supposedly possessed by a demon, died while being exorcised in what has become known as the Tanacu Exorcism. Using this real life tragedy as a springboard, director Xavier Gens and his team of writers proceed to crap out a sophomoric mess of standard jolts from The Exorcist and patronizing “faith based” horse shit straight out of Sunday school. Upon hearing about a botched exorcism in eastern Europe, American journalist and staunch atheist Sophie Cookson (Nicole Rawlins displaying the emotional range of a potato) travels to backwoods Romania in order to expose what really happened. Her investigations lead to the usual glut of taciturn nuns, mysterious locals, and enigmatic priests including the handsome Fr. Anton (Corneliu Ulici trying to keep a straight face) who quickly becomes her de facto spiritual advisor. “God does not fail to answer [prayers]…” he intones over dinner as Sophie bitterly recounts the untimely death of her mother a few years earlier, “…we are the ones who have failed to receive…” And thus are planted the seeds of faith which come to full bloom once the special effects team swings into action. Windows slam shut, beds overturn, flies dive bomb into wine glasses, and musical cues prompt bugaboos to jump out of corners while flashbacks show the doomed nun sporting black contacts and squeezing spiders out of her vagina, all of which serve to make Sophie rightfully question her atheistic ways before the demon comes knocking on her own door. Heaven help us all. As a straight-up horror flick Gens’ heavy hand tries to steamroll over his audience as if pious platitudes and monster make-up are sufficient to suspend our disbelief—they’re not of course, and what shocks do occur are strictly by the numbers (Don’t turn around Sophie! Don’t go in that locked room!) At least a visit to a dreary psychiatric clinic where the nun was once hospitalized attempts to raise the question of mental illness vs superstitious fear, but that too is quickly drowned out by more scream scenes and a devilish nurse. “You can’t make sense out of something that makes no sense…” Sophie whines to her New York editor—probably the most polite critique anyone can muster.

Bad Education
(Spain 2004) (7): It’s Madrid, 1980, and thirty-ish Enrique Goded is making a name for himself as an up-and-coming film director. Enter Ignacio Rodriguez (Gael Garcia Bernal), a former schoolmate now a struggling actor hungry for work who bursts into Goded’s office with a homemade movie script in hand. Agreeing to read the script Enrique is at first intrigued and then obsessed, for the story—revolving around two Catholic school boys in love with each other whose abuse at the hands of a predatory priest irrevocably alters their lives—mirrors his own childhood experiences growing up with Ignacio. But when he agrees to shoot the film with his former friend in the lead he’s shocked to discover the script contains a few deadly curveballs including an “alternate ending” that not even he saw coming… What a tangled web he weaves when Pedro Almodóvar sets out to deceive and this dark, twisted homage to American Film Noir and campy Spanish películas of yesteryear is no exception. Presented as a film within a film and generously laced with drugs, fluid identities (masks and make-up figure heavily), and transgressive homo lust—not to mention a bitter blast directed squarely at the church—all played with an unwaveringly grim straight face, one can get caught up in the film’s downbeat subterfuge without ever noticing the sardonic humour which underpins everything. From posters alluding to Almodóvar’s other films to a harrowing scene of priestly stalking which looks as if it belongs in a Friday the 13th sequel to all those little queer touches (Bernal actually looks damn convincing in drag) this polished telenovela has Pedro’s signature all over it, a fact which makes its many loops both refreshingly offbeat and so-so predictable. First and foremost however, like All About My Mother that came before it, this is a love poem to the art of filmmaking.

Word is Out
(USA 1977) (8): Shot in the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS heyday of Gay Liberation using nothing more than a static handheld camera, this series of simple interviews offers a fascinating glimpse into the hopes, dreams, and nightmares of those gay men and women who came before us. Drawing upon dozens of diverse and brave (for the time) volunteer subjects, the Mariposa Film Group records their thoughts and insights on everything from love and relationships to activism, sexuality, and the politics of race and gender. With dignity and wry candour, a retired veteran recalls the lesbian purges which occurred in the U.S. Army Women’s Corps; an androgynous young man decries the butch-femme segregation he experienced within the gay community itself; a pair of feminists—one young and black, one elderly and white—give a face to the fledgling movement; and a host of divorcés explain what it cost them to marry for appearance sake—one man even underwent involuntary shock therapy at the behest of his angry father-in-law. But these are just a few of the film’s many highlights as directors Nancy Adair et al elicit stories which will have you laughing one moment, wiping a tear away the next, and for those of us old enough to remember what it used to be like perhaps stirring up ancient memories of our own coming-out. Even though some may be put off by the film's primitive production values and endless talking heads, this remains an invaluable time capsule giving very human voices to our history at a time when so many of us were just beginning to emerge into the light.

Better Off Dead
(USA 1985) (7): High school senior Lane Meyer (John Cusack) is not having a good life. His clueless parents are an embarrassment (Dad is an uptight WASP, mom is a dingbat whose culinary forays look more like biology experiments—one gelatinous creation actually crawls off the plate); his kid brother is a savant genius who can pick up a roomful of chicks and create a death laser all on the same day; the homicidal paper boy is demanding a pound of flesh in exchange for two dollars owed; and a pair of crazy Asian twins continually beat him at road racing. But the ultimate cherry on his crap sundae is the fact his hot blonde girlfriend (whom he’s pathologically obsessed with—cue funny-creepy factor) has just dumped him for the hunky blonde leader of the downhill skiing club. With no recourse but to end his life Lane discovers, much to his humiliation, that he can’t even commit suicide properly… To be honest, “Savage” Steve Holland’s derivative 80s teen comedy doesn’t have a lot going for it: the sophomoric script overruns with pure corn, the silly sight gags seem borrowed, and the entire plot is so tired it has age spots, but its sheer absurdity combined with touches of good old 80s nostalgia were just enough to keep me smiling and laughing out loud. As dad, David Ogden Stiers provides a passable foil whether he’s facing High Noon with the aforementioned paperboy or making clumsy attempts to bond with his sons while Kim Darby plays mom like a loveable airhead (everyone gets frozen TV dinners for Christmas presents!) Meanwhile across the street Laura Waterbury and Dan Schneider provide comedic relief as the grotesque Mrs. Smith and her son Ricky, she looking like a toned-down Divine he resembling a rotund future serial killer, with Diane Franklin slaughtering the accent as their French exchange student and horrified object of Ricky’s geeky lust. But it’s Curtis Armstrong who ultimately owns the film as Lane’s BFF, a gravelly-voiced druggie who looks like a chimney sweep and is not above snorting strawberry jello in the school cafeteria. For his part Cusack just seems preoccupied with more important things as he reads his lines, supposedly he absolutely hated this film and never talked to Holland again. True to the genre the movie practically writes itself—you know the underdog will triumph, the jock will be humiliated, and the French girl will figure prominently—but this was the decade that brought us Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day off, so if Holland uses the same cookie cutter he at least turns out a decent batch. Look for the late Vincent Schiavelli as math teacher Mr. Kerber—his classroom scene is a howl especially for anyone who remembers coming to class totally unprepared.