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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Les Misérables
(France 2019) (7): Stéphane, a conscientious police officer from the sticks, follows his ex-wife and son to Paris where he joins a tough anti-crime unit working the racially divided working class suburb of Montfermeil (where Victor Hugo wrote his titular opus). Teamed up with cynical veterans Chris whose disdain for those he polices is all too evident and Gwada, a soft-spoken black man who grew up in the neighbourhood and still carries a quiet grudge, Stéphane’s faith in the system is eventually shaken to its core. Fuelled by racial tensions, crime, and gang loyalties, Montfermeil is a rundown no man’s land of grimy housing projects haunted by disaffected youth barely kept in check by the authorities and self-proclaimed “community leaders” who are little more than gangsters with influence. But when a messy arrest attempt turns tragic for one young boy both the anti-crime unit and the thugs they collaborate with are suddenly faced with an enraged backlash which threatens to engulf the entire community in flame and fury. Based on his own short film, writer/director Ladj Ly’s first full-length feature goes beyond the usual good guys/bad guys policier to give a visceral dissection of France’s faltering multiculturalism and the racial tensions, naked opportunism, and societal decay it engenders. Shot in a riveting quasi verité style with a cast whose non-professionals easily keep pace with its lead stars, Ly neither denounces nor excuses his protagonists choosing instead to show everything in gritty context. The police are faced with a constant uphill battle in which they are forced to make crooked deals and turn the occasional blind eye in order to keep things from boiling over—and oftentimes they take advantage of that position. Likewise, the neighbourhood kingpins (including the district’s unofficial “Mayor”) exert their own iron fists when need be, raking in illegal profits while at the same time cooperating, albeit begrudgingly, with the very officers who should be arresting them. It is the youth however who must bear the brunt. Directionless and without much tangible hope, Ly’s cameras follow a handful of them over the course of one decisive day. Even though their abrupt transformation from ragtag slackers to military-style guerrillas is a bit of a dramatic stretch, taken as a metaphor for released rage it serves its purpose admirably ending with one of cinema’s more incendiary standoffs. “Remember this, my friends…” quotes Hugo himself before the closing credits roll, “…there are no such things as bad plants or bad men, there are only bad cultivators”. And with this clearly in mind Ly demonstrates that in a complicated world the moral divide between the police and the policed is not so easily drawn. A great companion piece to Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 classic, La haine.

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte
(USA 1964) (8): Bette Davis has trouble keeping her marbles in Robert Aldrich’s campy slice of Southern horror, a psychotic romp whose ghoulish details and decayed antebellum settings are a perfect match for its over-the-top performances. Thirty-seven years after she was implicated—but never charged—in the brutal slaying and partial dismemberment of her married lover, aging southern belle Charlotte Hollis (Davis resurrecting Baby Jane) is an embittered and unhinged recluse living alone on her family estate—a once grand Louisiana manor now slated for demolition. Cared for by her disheveled and eternally pugnacious housemaid Velma (Agnes Moorehead, magnificent!), the corrosive Charlotte is determined to keep her home, her dignity, and her sanity, but it would appear that all three are slowly slipping through her fingers. Starting with midnight visitations from her dead lover and progressing to mayhem, madness…and more…the screeching spinster seems caught up in a nightmare from which she can’t awaken. Is she really the victim of spiteful plotting as she maintains, or could this be a guilty conscience taking its final toll? Filmed in dreary B&W which highlights its noirish elements—Charlotte’s sunless mansion comes to resemble an ostentatious tomb brimming with family skeletons, Spanish moss drapes everything in funereal shrouds—Aldrich’s gothic chiller is heavy on atmosphere yet kept afloat by a star cast who throw caution to the wind and give us a macabre bayou melodrama. Davis waffles between iron-willed harridan and raving psychotic (how else are you supposed to behave when you see a severed head come bouncing down the staircase?) and she’s joined by an oily Olivia de Havilland playing an estranged cousin who comes to help but only makes things worse…much worse; Joseph Cotten as Charlotte’s overly suave physician; Victor Buono (in flashback) as the Hollis family’s tyrannical patriarch; and the great Mary Astor in a small but crucial role as the murdered man’s sickly widow, an angry old woman with an ace up her sleeve. Nominated for seven Oscars including Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Supporting Actress for Moorehead (she had to settle for a Golden Globe instead), Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte is a splendidly exaggerated mash-up of murder mystery and supernatural terror with a twisted plot that compares quite favourably to H. G. Clouzot’s 1955 masterpiece, Les Diaboliques.

President
(Denmark/USA/UK 2021) (8): In 2018 Zimbabwe prepared for its first democratic presidential election since a military coup ousted longtime dictator Robert Mugabe. Throwing his hat in the race was Nelson Chamisa, an idealistic young lawyer fed up with his country’s ongoing economic crisis brought on by decades of violence and government corruption and who, along with his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, was determined to put power back into the hands of the people. Unfortunately he was running against incumbent president and former Mugabe crony Emmerson Mnangagwa, a man who attained his office by force and was determined to keep it using whatever means he felt necessary—legal or outright illegal. Thus faced with an unscrupulous regime whose influence stretched from the army and police to the electoral commission to the courts themselves, Chamisa and his supporters prepared for an uphill battle while the world watched… For this scathing exposé documentarian Camilla Nielsson was granted unprecedented access to Chamisa and the MDC party, following him from one rally to the next as well as recording the intimate minutes of his strategy meetings which started to resemble a war cabinet after Mnangagwa began flexing his political muscle. Unscripted and shot on the fly in true verité style, Nielsson captures the zeitgeist of a country hungry for change yet still shackled by governmental collusion and authoritarian dictates. While the reigning president, convinced he cannot lose, puffs himself up for photo ops and the modest Chamisa campaigns before cheering crowds, Nielsson sets the stage for a very African “David vs Goliath” showdown at the polls—only this particular Goliath seems to hold all the cards. Opening with a charismatic rally before rural villagers and closing with a court challenge that is little more than political theatre, this is an absorbing chronicle of deception and criminality in high places which draws uncomfortable parallels from around the globe.

Deliver Us From Evil
(South Korea 2020) (8): Busy professional assassin In-nam is looking forward to hanging up his gun for good and retiring to a tropical beach…but life has other plans for him. To begin with the last man he killed, a cruel Japanese crime boss, has a homicidal maniac for a brother—appropriately nicknamed “The Butcher”—who is determined to take revenge on In-nam no matter where he hides. Secondly, he takes a personal interest in the kidnapping of a little eight-year old girl in Thailand. Jumping from Tokyo to Seoul to Bangkok, In-nam must try and save the child while managing to stay one step ahead of The Butcher. And the bodies just keep piling up… No one does kick-ass onscreen carnage like the Koreans and writer/director Won-Chan Hong’s chaotic gut-spiller is no exception. Lightning martial arts moves dazzle, storms of bullets rip across the screen, scenery is sprayed in blood, car chases become airborne, and things blow up in spectacular slo-mo accompanied by walls of smoke and flame. Ooh! Aah! In the lead, Korean screen sensation Hwang Jung-min gives us a sweaty, stone-faced antihero trying to compensate for a lifetime of bloodletting by saving a life instead of taking one (even though he ends up taking several in the process). In contrast Lee Jung-jae’s psychotic “Butcher” makes Hannibal Lecter look like an amateur and diminutive Park So-yi plays on those heartstrings as the wee doe-eyed kidnap victim. But it is matinee idol Park Jeong-min who provides the biggest surprise in his role as “Yoo-Yi”, a transsexual cabaret singer who’s hired by In-nam to be a Thai translator-slash-sidekick. What starts out as a bit of comic relief ends up being one of the film’s most sympathetic and heartfelt characters—a guardian angel in heels and bangles. In the end it doesn’t make a whole lot of narrative sense (these films seldom do) but for sheer chemistry and pyrotechnics it definitely gets a passing grade.

Breath
(Australia 2017) (9): There is a difference between “coming of age” and “growing up”, a subtle distinction brought out beautifully in this gently nuanced story (based on Tim Winton’s novel and set in the ‘70s) about two teenaged friends who find themselves taking two separate paths. Quiet and cautious “Pikelet” (Samson Coulter) couldn’t be any more different than his best buddy “Loonie” (Ben Spence), a brash and impulsive young hellraiser willing to accept a dare on almost anything. One passion they discover they do share however is surfing—Pikelet drawn to the quasi spiritual sensation of dancing on waves, Loonie taking to the huge breakers as an act of rebellious defiance. But when they forge an unlikely friendship with former champion surfer Sando (writer/director Simon Baker), he becomes something of a mentor and guru to the impressionable boys causing the differences in their temperaments to become increasingly apparent with bittersweet results. Filmed along western Australia’s rugged coastline, Baker employs a small cast and a powerful yet minimalist script to produce an adolescent parable whose ethereal touches compare favourably to the fever dreams of Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock…a sensation further enhanced by a soundtrack of orchestral surges and soft rock. The few grownups in Pikelet and Loonie’s confined world each add a facet to their journey towards adulthood: Sando is a man forever chasing a dream; his wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), a former champion skier sidelined by a crippling injury, has all but given up on hers and now finds passion in more self-destructive pursuits; Pikelet’s parents offer domestic stability while Loonie’s home is a hotbed of abuse and neglect. And then there’s the sea. Gorgeously filmed from above and below, its restless swells and thundering waves are a fitting psychological metaphor particularly when the camera focuses on two young men nervously clinging to their wooden boards as they dare the ocean to knock them off. Newcomers Coulter and Spence are superb, exhibiting an onscreen confidence usually seen in more seasoned performers. And Debicki’s turn as a frustrated woman whose internalized anger affects everyone around her (even influencing the weather at times) provides a melancholic counterpoint to the film’s overall themes of self-discovery and self-acceptance—Eva’s scenes with the impressionable yet steadfast Pikelet a veritable study in emotional contradictions. I must admit to approaching a film “about surfing” with few expectations, a personal bias which made the actual experience all the more moving.

The Addams Family
(USA 2019) (3): The iconic 1960s TV family gets animated for this feature film which is heavy on the creepy and kooky buy woefully short on the laughs. The cadaverous Morticia (voice of Charlize Theron) and her oily husband Gomez (Oscar Isaac) happily take up residence in an abandoned—and very haunted—insane asylum which conveniently comes with its own permanent thunderstorm. Unfortunately, their impeccably dilapidated dwelling proves to be an eyesore for the neatly manicured town of “Assimilation” (get it?) causing local real estate magnate and home improvement guru, the gargantuan-coiffed Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), to declare war on the Addams and their freaky misfit relatives. Guess who wins? Lots of morbid touches repeatedly drive home the fact that the Addams clan are oddballs—monotonously depressed emo daughter Wednesday disrupts her high school biology class by turning dead frogs into zombies; her sociopathic brother Pugsley has fun with guided missiles; grandma (Bette Midler) keeps crawly snacks between her toes—but if you’re expecting the same delightfully macabre joie de vivre which made the Carolyn Jones/John Astin series and Anjelica Huston/Raul Julia live action production so infectiously likeable you’re in for a huge disappointment. There is not much here to shore up the “OMG! ha! ha!” visuals (oh look, that mounted fish has six eyes! Wednesday has a pet octopus!) and a handful of tepid Easter eggs will only be noticed by those of us old enough to remember and bored enough to care. But the final nail in this creaky cartoon coffin comes in the form of a song & dance ending where the fluffy DEI mantra of “JUST BE YOURSELF YAY!!!” gets shoved down your throat so far you’ll be coughing up smiley-faced hairballs.

The Invisible Woman
(UK 2013) (5): As he was enjoying fame and fortune in the latter part of his career, author Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes, who also directed) became smitten with teenaged actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) who, despite her moral upbringing, eventually responded to his attentions with a bit of encouragement from her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). But social propriety at the time would relegate Nelly to a life of hiding in the great man’s shadow even after his very public separation from his long-suffering wife (Joanna Scanlan). Fiennes’ turgid costume drama, based on Claire Tomalin’s historically suspect novel, certainly captures a time and place—namely 19th century England—with its Oscar-nominated wardrobes and bucolic backdrops straight from the easels of Turner or Constable. And the cast puts in a good show: Fiennes plays Dickens as a compassionate yet conflicted genius constantly torn between his personal yearnings and his thirst for the spotlight; Jones gives us a fluttery adolescent whose hero worship gradually devolves into something else (the movie is told in flashback as a more mature and respectably married Nelly looks back); and Thomas presents a protective mother balancing the need to shield her youngest daughter with the need to see that she is well looked after…as the mistress of a wealthy bon vivant perhaps. But it is Scanlan who ultimately steals the thunder from the film’s two leads, her quiet portrayal of a dutiful if somewhat dull wife turned into unloved castaway is heartbreak personified. However, historical inaccuracies aside, so much time is spent on sun-dappled introspection and restrained emotions that the whole production slogs along without ever taking wing. A spark of erotica occurs as Dickens and Ternan fumble toward that first kiss, yet it fails to ignite any fires. Likewise, with the exception of Scanlan’s flawlessly downplayed performance, it’s all but impossible to feel much more than warm indifference for either the slightly egocentric older man or the melancholic object of his desire. Visually arresting just the same with its postcard snapshots of industrial era England waffling between marbled manors, rococo apartments, and grimy alleyways littered with orphans and prostitutes, and graced with a cast who look and act as if they were born into it. Sadly, that’s pretty much where the allure ended for me.

We Have a Pope
(Italy 2011) (4): Following the death of the reigning Pope the Vatican’s College of Cardinals duly elects a successor—the quiet and somewhat neurotic Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli). But just as they’re about to present the new pontiff to his throngs of adoring fans gathered in St. Peter’s Square—not to mention a billion Catholics around the globe—Melville is suddenly incapacitated by a major panic attack. A psychiatrist (writer/director Nanni Moretti himself) is called upon to intervene but before he can make any leeway Melville manages to escape into the streets of Rome leaving no clue as to his whereabouts. Now, with the faithful eagerly waiting to discover the identity of the Church’s new leader and the Vatican scrambling to prevent a PR nightmare, it’s going to take a miracle (or a psychological breakthrough) to save the Holy See. An interesting premise whose potential sting is fatally hampered by a sloppy script which doesn’t know which direction it wants to take—is this a deadpan comedy, an ironic look at the business of faith and power, or the story of a man forced to reinvent himself under pressure? Without a pope to provide focus the cardinals are seen to scramble about almost like school kids with the psychiatrist even organizing them into teams for a volleyball tournament (huh?) while the Pope’s secretary covers his tracks by giving the press false updates on a Holy Father who doesn’t exist. In the meantime the public’s confusion is turning into impatience with everyone from journalists to world leaders weighing in despite a lack of information. And then there’s Melville himself, a timid everyman figure whose simple faith is shaken beyond repair by the enormous responsibilities thrust upon him. Wandering about Rome in a daze he eventually falls in with a troupe of actors performing…wait for it…Chekov! A study in missed potentials, Moretti’s lukewarm film does contain some standout performances especially from Piccoli as the reluctant Vicar of Christ—his fat, balding old man intentionally unremarkable in appearance yet whose struggles with faith, identity, and responsibility are truly moving nevertheless. Nor are his struggles unique to him alone for during the Vatican vote every potential candidate for the papacy, knowing what that office entails, secretly prayed that they would not be the chosen one. Unfortunately not even the late actor can alleviate the film’s long stretches of tedium nor its many puzzling non-sequiturs, and the character of the psychotherapist seems tacked on simply to provide a mouthpiece for Moretti’s own religious/political sentiments. Great sets and costumes however, and although he is a professed atheist himself Moretti approaches his subject with utmost compassion. I wish I could have liked it more.

Autumn Leaves
(USA 1956) (8): The staid and colourless life of a lonely spinster (Joan Crawford) begins to blossom when a handsome young stranger (Cliff Robertson) takes an acute shine to her. But what starts out as a whirlwind romance turns into something more sinister when she begins to notice discrepancies in what he tells people about himself—was he in the army or not? is he from Wisconsin or Chicago?—and her attempts to uncover the truth only lead to heated evasions and more inconsistencies. And then she receives a visitor who proceeds to turn her newfound happiness upside down…but who is really telling the truth? Rife with melodramatics, director Robert Aldrich’s intense soap opera nevertheless shines a mature spotlight on such taboo (for the 1950s) subjects as mental health, domestic abuse, and May-December romances with the film’s sense of foreboding giving way to chills and tragedy before moving on to the warmest compassion. Perfectly cast despite the seventeen year difference in their ages (or perhaps because of it) Crawford and Robertson dominate the scenery—her cautious old maid gradually letting down her guard; his lovesick gallant raising his as the past comes back to haunt them both. Graced with a sharp script in which even the most heated exchanges flow naturally, and directed with a consummate skill that neither rushes the story through nor bogs it down with excess pathos, this is truly a love story for adults—the occasional narrative stretch notwithstanding. Lorne Greene and Vera Miles co-star as a pair of complications, character actress Ruth Donnelly shines as Crawford’s no-nonsense landlady, and Mr. Nat “King” Cole croons the soulful title song.

Past Lives
(USA/Korea 2023) (5): First love is just blossoming between schoolgirl Na Young and her handsome classmate Hae Sung when her family decides to immigrate to Canada from Korea. Twelve years later Na Young, now going by Nora, is a struggling playwright living in Manhattan and Hae Sung is an engineering student when they hook-up briefly on social media, but even though a small spark is reignited Life ends up getting in the way and it will be another twelve years before they actually meet in person. A lot can happen in twenty-four years however and this reunion between two former childhood sweethearts, now separated by time and culture, will lead to a bittersweet weekend exploring the vagaries of destiny, love, and the choices we make. The I-Ching meets the Hallmark Channel for this rambling exercise in navel-gazing and teary philosophizing which may strive for the depths of Linklater’s dialogue-driven Before Sunrise but winds up firing a bunch of emotional blanks instead—long misty stares and whispered confessions just don’t add up to a whole lot given a script overrun by romantic clichés and mushy sentimentalism. Listening in on Nora and Hae Sung’s repetitive ruminations as they take in the Manhattan scenery becomes tedious even with writer/director Celine Song throwing in a few flashy metaphors (a carousel goes round and round, a subway car rumbles along a preordained track) and leads Greta Lee and Teo Yoo evoke no onscreen chemistry whatsoever. But at least Yoo throws some restrained passion into his character when compared to Lee’s wooden performance (was Nora supposed to be medicated?) And John Magaro, playing the “other man” in Nora’s life, tags along as a self-conscious third wheel. The only people missing were Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda as the BFFs.

The Zone of Interest
(USA/UK/Poland 2023) (9): It's 1943 and Rudolf Höss and his wife Hedwig are living the good life with their children in a beautiful country home. Rudolf likes to fish and read bedtime stories to the kids, Hedwig fusses over her colourful flower garden and keeps the servants in line, and they both indulge the children with picnics and outings to the beach. But this opening idyll is quickly shattered when it’s revealed that just beyond Hedwig’s garden wall lie the gas chambers of Auschwitz where Rudolf presides as the acting commandant. And thus writer/director Jonathan Glazer sets us up for a family drama where ordinary people go about their day—they laugh, they squabble, they have birthday parties—even as monstrous acts occur just a few meters away. And although the horrors of Hitlers’ Final Solution are never explicitly shown they are nevertheless felt throughout with the sound of machinery, trains, gunfire, and frightened shouts dulled to a constant subsonic quaver while crystal blue skies and the pristine waters of a nearby river are only occasionally marred by windblown ash from the camp’s crematoria. Far from your usual “holocaust movie” in that Glazer shocks his audience not with grisly scenes of carnage but rather with quiet domestic passages in which the horrific exists side by side with the mundane—Rudolf swells with pride when he’s promoted to overseeing the eradication of thousands of Hungarian Jews; Hedwig’s closet is full of dresses and a fur coat taken from the condemned; and the couple’s eldest son covets his collection of gold-filled teeth as if they were prized marbles. In one brilliant stroke Glazer also gives a great big salute to Günter Grass when we see the younger son banging away on his own little drum. Shot without embellishment or colour grading and using natural light whenever possible (a side story involving a defiant little Polish girl was filmed at night using a thermal camera) Glazer’s clinical approach to his protagonists, so reminiscent of Michael Haneke, creates an emotional disconnect with audiences which perfectly mirrors the humanitarian disconnect of his characters—a chasm further emphasized by long passages where the screen remains black or blood red while a discordant music score resonates with shrieks and thunderclaps. Taking home Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Sound (both hugely deserved) this is a brilliantly executed dissection of moral blindness, denial, and insidious evil opening as it does with a scene of sunlit Eden and closing with a metaphorical descent into the dark pit.

Neither Heaven Nor Earth
(France 2015) (8): Supernatural thriller, spiritual puzzle box, or humanist parable, writer/director Clément Cogitore’s existential war movie borders on all three—but if there’s one single explanation for the film’s central mystery it’s left entirely up to the viewer. When soldiers under his command begin disappearing one by one while stationed in the outback of Afghanistan, French captain Antarès Bonassieu (an intense Jérémie Renier) is both perplexed and increasingly agitated. His men appear to be vanishing into thin air—some right out of their sleeping bags—and the most thorough searches fail to uncover any clues. Even the local Taliban is experiencing the same phenomenon while nearby villagers, who appear to be unaffected, start behaving oddly. Are the men going AWOL? Being kidnapped? Or are the warnings of a young shepherd who claims divine intervention is at work to be taken seriously? Shot in the barren hills of Morocco, Cogitore certainly incorporates elements of horror into his story with handheld camera sequences reminiscent of Blair Witch and midnight reconnaissance missions filmed through night vision goggles, the grainy footage rendered in ghostly shades of fluorescent green. Although lacking in the usual jump scares and gore, there is nevertheless a creep factor at work which slowly ratchets up as the mystery deepens and one begins to suspect that enemy snipers are not the only danger lurking among the rocks. Meanwhile the villagers cite the hand of Allah while Christian symbols (including the all-seeing eyes of God which crop up in the most unexpected place) loom impotently in the background. But this is wartime, a time of fear and tension in a place where young men die and their comrades are left to make sense of it all. Viewed in this light the disappearances take on a psychological edge in which the focus is not so much on where these men went but rather on the fact that they are gone. With an outraged Antarès turning everything upside-down in order to locate them, the remaining men reverting to pagan-like rituals, and a chaplain flown in to intervene now at a loss for words, Cogitore poses a riddle that neither faith, nor rationality, nor sheer determination alone can adequately address—for once you’ve ruled out Heaven and Earth, what’s left?

Mountain Patrol
[Kekexili] (China 2004) (9): In the 1990s herds of Tibetan antelope living on the frigid Kekexili plateau of northern China were being decimated by poachers who stood to make a great deal of money in the illegal fur market. To stem this slaughter a group of grassroots conservationists came into being who, despite lacking legal authority to make arrests, made it their goal to bring poachers to some semblance of justice. But with vast fortunes on the line the poachers fought back, often with lethal consequences. Writer/director Chuan Lu uses this sad piece of history to create an existential road movie in which Beijing journalist Ga Yu, anxious for a story, tags along with one such mountain patrol under the tutelage of former army officer Ri Tai—and what he experiences will go far beyond mere headlines. Against timeless backdrops of jagged mountains and frozen plains spread beneath skies strewn with stars, Ga Yu’s quest into the heart of darkness unfolds with a savage poetry. Disquieting scenes of animal butchery and human cruelty vie with moments of sad reflection as an impassioned Ri Tai and his equally committed comrades fight a losing battle against one particularly ruthless poacher and his followers, mostly simple peasants whose former livelihoods—farming and ranching—have all but dried up. Joining in the fray are the elements themselves with sudden snowstorms and hidden dangers descending indiscriminately on the good and the bad alike while omnipresent vultures circle just overhead. Lu presents a world of moral compromises (Ri Tai is not wholly innocent) and brutal pragmatism wherein sworn enemies must sometimes rely on one another and even God exacts a price—the funerary practices of a local Buddhist sect would be appalling to Western eyes. And no one remains unaffected by this undeclared war, neither families nor lovers nor Ga Yu’s “neutral observer”. With a sharpness bordering on Cinema Verité, what starts out as an ecologically-minded tragedy partially funded by National Geographic gradually segues into a deeply felt transcendental reverie on Good and Evil, human nature, and the call of a higher power, be it Nature or Deity. And a restrained score of native music ties it all together beautifully.

Nobody’s Watching
[Nadie nos mira] (Argentina 2017) (7): Following a tumultuous break-up with a married director, wildly popular soap actor Nico (a passionate Guillermo Pfening) leaves Buenos Aires to seek his fortune in New York City. But the dream soon sours when he finds the Big Apple neither knows nor cares that he was a star back home (various producers tell him he’s either too Spanish or not Spanish enough) and he must rely on menial jobs and shoplifting in order to support himself while simultaneously lying to his friends and family that his career is right on track. Suffering one professional setback after another it will take a few faces from his past—and one brutally honest critique—to jar Nico into re-evaluating his life… Without resorting to knee-jerk sentimentality, writer/director Julia Solomonoff encapsulates the immigrant experience with this story of a restless man in search of opportunity abroad who goes from a celebrity to a nobody instead—even ex-pats regarding him with a mixture of pity and bemusement and one successfully married friend going so far as to hire him to be a Hispanic nanny for her child. It’s also a “fish out of water” parable in which Nico learns the hard way that fame and success don’t occur simply because one wills them to. It’s his juggling of twin identities, that of the established foreign actor and penniless newcomer, combined with his washed out hopes which ultimately gives the film its bite. And Solomonoff underscores this disconnect beautifully with a recurring image of Nico’s favourite drinking spot—a stretch of rocks overlooking a bay of water beyond which a twinkling skyline rises cold and remote. Thomas Wolfe once asserted that you can never go home again, and while that may be true sometimes it takes a difficult journey to make us appreciate what “home” really means.

Elling
(Norway 2001) (5): Norway’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2002 Oscars is an insufferably upbeat “odd couple” movie whose message, “Hold On To Your Dreams No Matter What!” is shoved into your face far too many times to be effective. Roommates in a mental institution, Elling and Kjell Bjarne couldn’t be any more different. Sheltered by his mother since birth, overly fastidious 40-year old Elling is an anxiety-ridden neurotic given to vocal meltdowns who can’t even answer a phone without going into full panic mode. Also 40, slovenly Kjell Bjarne is a hulking overbearing brute who handles stress by smashing his face into walls and whose only goals in life are eating and losing his virginity. But when the two wind up being released to a state-funded apartment in the middle of Oslo they soon discover that their old coping mechanisms no longer work in the real world and they must learn to rely on themselves as well as others if they are going to make it. And can you guess what happens next? Director Petter Næss’ unwavering feel good flick cashes in on his characters’ wildly opposing temperaments for some lukewarm humour—agoraphobic Elling enters his first public restroom as if he were entering a gas chamber; Kjell Bjarne rings up a $4,000 telephone bill calling sex hotlines—before falling into the expected cliché-riddled groove as each man comes to realize his potential. And just to make sure we don’t miss the message he throws in a couple of signposts in the form of a distressed pregnant neighbour who awakens Kjell Bjarne’s inner decency, an aging poet who kindles an artistic flame in Elling, and a tough but kindly social worker who gently prods his two charges ever forward. Leads Per Christian Ellefsen as Elling and Sven Nordin who actually gained weight in order to give Kjell Bjarne more heft, do ignite some onscreen chemistry as their co-dependence slowly morphs into co-fortification, but they can never rise above a script riddled with mawkishness and Hallmark moments. I’m told the American stage adaptation with Brendan Fraser and Denis O’Hare was superior to the film which is hardly surprising considering how low the bar was set in the first place.

Marie Antoinette
(USA 1938) (9): Despite the usual historical stretches common to these films, MGM’s romanticized biopic of Marie Antoinette—the little Austrian princess who became queen of France before meeting her end at the guillotine—is still a dazzling costume epic more than deserving of its four Oscar nominations. In the lead Norma Shearer (Best Actress nominee) exudes star power with her character going from giddy teenager to headstrong monarch whose flamboyant ways made her the target of angry mobs and court opportunists alike, to humbled prisoner bereft of family, friends, and hope as she awaits her execution at the beginning of France’s “Reign of Terror”. Her gradual transformations are pure cinema culminating in one of Hollywood’s most moving performances, those final days behind dank prison walls sure to move all but the hardest of hearts. Also of note are Robert Morley (Best Supporting Actor nominee) as Louis XVI, her whimpering simp of a husband; a bristling John Barrymore as the aging Louis XV; Joseph Schildkraut as the unctuous Duke d’Orléans, a powdered dandy intent on seizing power for himself; and heartthrob Tyrone Power as a visiting Swedish nobleman who carries on a chaste love affair with the unhappily married Marie. But it is the set design and costume departments which turn the production into a 150-minute spectacle. Partly filmed at Versailles itself, MGM spared no expense on recreating lavish interiors overflowing with rococo trappings and crystal chandeliers under which exquisitely wigged and gowned lords and ladies cavort like storybook characters—apparently Shearer’s meticulously sewn outfits alone had a combined weight of almost one ton. And Herbert Stothart’s Oscar-nominated score matches the scenery perfectly whether its accompanying an opulent royal wedding or a harrowing midnight flight through a dark forest. Self-centred aristocrat or naïve pawn—she was only 19 when she ascended to the throne, part of a political pact between Austria and France—directors W. S. Van Dyke and Julien Duvivier don’t profess to offer us a history lesson. What they do leave behind however is a slice of pure movie magic.

The Closed Doors
(Egypt 1999) (7): Teenaged Mohammed has not had an easy life. His father abandoned the family long ago, his older brother is missing and presumed dead in the ongoing Gulf War, and his mother is barely making enough money to maintain their squalid apartment in one of Cairo’s poorer neighbourhoods. Now, with the onset of adolescence, he is further plagued by mood swings and sexual urgings he doesn’t know how to handle. All of which make him a prime target for a group of fundamentalists operating out of the local mosque. Hiding his own fears behind a facade of righteousness, koran firmly in hand, Mohammed sets out to “correct” his strong-willed mother’s sinful ways (she refuses to obey the right wing rhetoric of her son’s new mentors) as well as those of his next door neighbour, an unhappily married woman who makes a few extra pounds as an escort… With production values and performances barely one step above an Arabic soap opera, writer/director Atef Hetata’s exposé of one troubled young man suddenly thrust into a moral crossroads he’s ill-equipped to manoeuvre nevertheless makes for some powerful (and highly contentious) viewing. As a grandiose orchestral score ebbs and floes in the background, political propaganda and religious tirades compete with secular entertainment on TV sets and radios—turning Mohammed’s predicament into a metaphor for an entire nation. Whether it’s the wailing voice of a muezzin interrupting an erotic wet dream (“God forgive me!”) or the sight of a woman’s bare knee pushing temptation to the breaking point, Hetata’s critique of earthly (and entirely normal) desires going up against the overbearing precepts of fundamentalist Islam starts off innocuous enough before snowballing into something none of his characters are prepared for. A confrontational piece of filmmaking despite its modest means.

Zift
(Bulgaria 2008) (6): Bulgaria’s Best Foreign Language Oscar submission for 2009 is this B&W homage to Film Noir which, despite its lapses into wordy navel-gazing, still pulls off a few clever twists while thumbing its nose at the country’s dalliance with Communism. Jailed in 1944 (just before the Communist coup) for a murder he didn’t commit, embittered “Moth” is finally a free man. But the past is waiting for him in the form of an estranged wife and a murderous associate, both of whom joined Moth in a botched diamond heist which resulted in his imprisonment and the disappearance of the stone. Convinced Moth knows the whereabouts of the missing gem after all these years, his associate hires a couple of goons to extract the information from him while his wife, a femme fatale hovering in the background, holds on to a few secrets of her own… Shot in crisp 35mm with flashbacks in 16mm and blurred 8mm, director Javor Gardev’s Bulgaria is a dank and gloomy world of crumbling architecture and flooded basements in which a woman’s bathhouse sets the stage for a novel chase sequence involving a glass eye (?!), a nightclub chanteuse belts out a bit of irony, and a midnight visit to a muddy cemetery provides more questions than answers (and breaks the tension somewhat with a very funny fart joke). Zachary Baharov, as the film’s buff and shockingly tattooed protagonist—and film’s voiceover narrator—gives us a passable Eastern European Bogart (or Edmond O’Brien) trying to evade goons and crooked officials alike and leaving audiences to wonder just how much he actually does know. And meanwhile in the background radios dutifully announce the time in between jaunty Socialist tunes. Not a great film by any means, but Gardev certainly displays much more than a passing familiarity with the genre especially when it comes to staging and lighting, and his cast of hunks and dames—including a pair of nympho nurses—know how to lay it on thick and heavy.

Ghost World
(USA 2001) (7): For BFFs Enid and Rebecca high school graduation threatens to unbalance the equilibrium they’ve formed over the past four years. Perpetually depressed goth chick Enid (Thora Birch in black dye and horn rims) is in the habit of projecting her own insecurities onto the world around her in the form of cutting remarks and cynical asides. Slacker Rebecca (17-year old Scarlett Johansson sans make-up and hairspray) on the other hand has begun to feel the first stirrings of maturity as she seeks out gainful employment and an apartment to call her own. But when the two misfits decide to pull one last mean prank by answering a lonely hearts ad placed by dumpy older geek Seymour (Steve Buscemi personifying apathy and desperation) it has unforeseen consequences, especially when Enid’s guilty conscience starts to elicit other feelings she never realized she had… Shot in primary shades with a background cast of colourful nerds and eccentrics—from a nunchucks-wielding greaseball to an airy-fairy art teacher—director Terry Zwigoff’s teenage angst dramedy certainly reflects its comic book origins. Birch’s monotone delivery and affected sense of adolescent ennui are spot on as she sets the stage for Enid’s emotional comeuppance while Johansson provides the perfect foil-cum-sounding board as her character begins to sense there is more to life than joyrides and backstabbing. And Buscemi bridges the gap as his rubbery-faced fall guy goes from object of derision to the film’s only sympathetic player—albeit a rather pathetic one. Sure to resonate with anyone who has ever struggled through their teens regardless of what year they graduated (the film is vaguely set in the ‘90s), Zwigoff’s Oscar-nominated screenplay, based on Daniel Clowes’ comic, keeps things appropriately downbeat which makes those bursts of pathos all the more biting. And that beautifully ambivalent denouement is sure to divide opinions. The late great director Yasujir┼Ź Ozu used the image of faraway trains to suggest the implacable hand of fate at work, here Zwigoff relies instead on a rickety old city bus—a metaphor which, considering the circumstances, couldn’t have been any more perfect.

Digger
(Greece 2020) (5): Touted as a contemporary Hellenic Western, writer/director Georgis Grigorakis’ sociopolitical family drama was Greece’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film. Living on several hundred acres of pristine northern forest, grizzled old farmer Nikitas (a convincing Vangelis Mourikis) is at peace among the towering oaks and quiet spaces. But a mining company has been buying up local properties and now they have their sights on his land. With the nearby townspeople already divided between those who want to preserve their way of life and those who welcome the jobs and financial incentives “progress” brings, a stubborn Nikitas refuses to sell out despite the company’s unwelcome intrusions on his privacy. And then a complication enters his life in the form of Johnny, a son he hasn’t seen in twenty years and who now claims half the property as his own thanks to a provision in his late mother’s Will. A generational clash of ideologies results with father and son refusing to budge on their opposing opinions while just a few kilometres away a giant mining machine—nicknamed “The Monster”—slowly devours the landscape. Cinematographer Giorgos Karvelas certainly shows an affinity for mist-shrouded trees and soaring cloudscapes (with dynamite explosions and belching industrial machinery providing contrast), his rustic barnyards and rain-soaked forest trails calling to mind an English landscape painting only with less pastoral pleasantries and more mud. And Grigorakis’ simple script mirrors these uncomplicated visuals. But despite the inclusion of some Greek politics this is essentially the same old “David vs Goliath” trope that’s been repeated so many times it’s become tired and redundant. Yes the heartless corporation is raping the land, yes the proud peasant’s Zen-like attachment to hills and dales is tragically noble. And of course, lost in Eden, father and son will eventually experience their own epiphanies—in a clever move a trundling backhoe becomes both an agent of destruction and an ironic quasi-spiritual metaphor all in the same day. Despite impassioned performances from the two leads, Digger eventually becomes just one more tedious sermon to the choir whose slow burn ends with a pop instead of a bang.