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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Casino (USA 1995) (9): A gaudily dressed businessman sits behind the wheel of a Cadillac and as he turns the key the car explodes marking the beginning of one of Hollywood’s most iconic opening scenes—a burning body tumbling slowly through sheets of hellfire which gradually resolve into the gaudy neon of the Las Vegas Strip. In much the same vein as his earlier Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s 3-hour mafia epic set mainly in the 1970s and loosely adapted from actual headlines traces the rise and fall of two men—once childhood friends now bitter opponents—as they vie for a piece of America’s gambling mecca. Sam Rothstein (a suave Robert De Niro) is a successful casino owner trying to tread a fine line between legitimate entrepreneur and mob associate. His chum Nicky Santoro (a maniacal Joe Pesci) on the other hand is a sadistic, foul-mouthed gangland enforcer determined to own Las Vegas by any means possible. And as the two strong-willed men become increasingly estranged a wild card enters the fray in the form of Ginger (Sharon Stone, phenomenal), a vivacious but dangerously unstable call girl-cum-huckster who steals Sam’s heart…among other things. Scorsese admitted in an interview that “…there’s a lot of action, a lot of story, but no plot…” and to be sure, as the body count rises in various bloody ways it becomes obvious that this is a tale of shifting powers set against a landscape of bright lights and darker corruption where the only direction available is straight down. No epiphanies, no salvation, and no moral edicts to tie it all together. But what it lacks in momentum it more than compensates with pure style from the garish sets and flashy wardrobes to a non-stop soundtrack that wrings ironic counterpoint from the likes of Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, and Little Richard among others. Mirrors figure prominently, a case of golden baubles becomes an unholy grail, and twinkling facades fail to downplay the villainy of America’s own Sodom & Gomorrah. Sensitive viewers be warned, F-bombs fall like rain and despite being edited down for an “R” rating, the carnage is still visceral enough to put you off your popcorn. James Woods co-stars as Ginger’s manipulative pimp and Sorsese shows some cheekiness by casting former Las Vegas showstoppers in various bit roles: Don Rickles, Alan King, and Frankie Avalon all get their respective fifteen minutes.

The Man in the Moon
(USA 1991) (8): Although director Robert Mulligan’s coming-of-age story set in America’s deep south spreads the pathos a little too thick at times, his combination of star cast and Jenny Wingfield’s elegant script still elicits more nostalgic sighs than eye rolls. It’s the late 1950s and 14-year old tomboy Dani (14-year old Reese Witherspoon making an impressive screen debut) is mad about Elvis and bypassing parental edicts—she’d rather go skinny-dipping in the nearby pond than wash dishes. Her older sister Maureen (Emily Warfield) on the other hand is more sugar and spice although with university looming she’s begun to question exactly what she wants out of life. The sisters’ delicate balance is thrown into disarray one long hot summer when Court (Jason London), the handsome new boy next door, turns both their heads simultaneously—for Dani he represents that first devastating crush, for Maureen he presents a possible answer to all her doubts. But Court has his own pressing agenda and as the season wears on tragedy will rock an already precarious triangle. Filmed in Louisiana with a soundtrack of Elvis Presley 45s punctuated now and again by orchestral waves, this is wistful Harper Lee territory sans the pressing social issues. Bluest summer skies and dusty meadows form the perfect frame as quintessential adolescent Witherspoon, her mouth constantly working a wad of gum, goes from pants to skirts while educating herself on the finer points of flirting and kissing—her sexual awakening less a blossoming and more an awkward confusion, sometimes amusing sometimes agonizing. But anyone who used to be a teenager will instantly identify with her incipient desire and all the little sufferings which accompany it. Emotionally authentic (if somewhat embellished) and graced with a down-home credibility, it’s a small story which may not melt your heart but don’t be surprised if it skips an extra beat. Sam Waterston and Tess Harper are excellent as the parents coping with three daughters (one in a highchair) and another child on the way—their unflappable onscreen presence put to the test by a few trials of their own.

Tunnel
(S. Korea 2016) (7): When the freeway tunnel he’s driving through suddenly collapses, salesman Lee Jung-Soo is left with two bottles of water and a birthday cake, a partially-charged cellphone, and no means of escape. With the authorities alerted he must now try to survive as best he can beneath 180 metres of rock and soil which threaten to crush him at any moment. But the promised rescue is proving to be more elusive than he thought… As a straight-up disaster flick Seong-hun Kim’s claustrophobic thriller is gripping enough despite a couple of glaring stretches (how long can someone really survive on 10 cc of water per day? how long, exactly, can batteries last?) The subterranean set filled with mangled beams and jagged wires is appropriately cramped and dusty while the topside locations are bleak especially with a snowstorm that never seems to abate. But there is more going on here than a simple race against time for Kim manages to lampoon certain aspects of Korean society with a few satirical barbs. The local politicians are more concerned with flattering photo-ops than in addressing the tunnel’s shoddy workmanship; the press, hungry for a “human interest story”, will stoop to any depth to acquire it (in one scene their camera drones outnumber those of the rescuers); and the retrieval effort itself is beset by poor management, outdated manuals, and official mandates dictated by public opinion polls. And all the while Lee and his fretting wife go from media darlings to social pariahs as the bumbling rescue attempts take their toll in money and resources. A fairly standard genre piece lifted above the ordinary by flashes of mordant wit which place everyone—victim, rescuers, politicos, and the public at large—on very shaky ground indeed.

Blancanieves
(Spain 2012) (9): Poor little Carmencita. It’s bad enough that her mother has died, but her grief-stricken father, a famous toreador, has disowned her. And it all happened on the same day—the day she was born. Raised by her grandmother, the plucky child is eventually forced to return to her family estate after the old woman dies, a situation that doesn’t sit well with her new stepmother who rules the roost like a haute couture despot. Treated worse than a scullery maid, Carmencita ends up fleeing for her life only to fall in with a traveling troupe of bullfighting dwarves (?!) who adopt her as one of their own especially when she displays an innate talent for the sport. But her stepmother is not done with her yet… Set in 1920s Seville and shot as a B&W silent film, Pablo Berger’s stunning re-imagining of Snow White is a perfect combination of style and substance. With cleverly retro special effects and greasepaint theatrics all framed within a boxlike aspect ratio, he embellishes elements from Golden Age Hollywood epics with a wildly contemporary Spanish flair. The stepmother is more psychopathic than wicked, the dwarves are a colourful lot (one has a talent for drag), and nature itself takes on the guise of animal familiars with a pet rooster provoking a long overdue reconciliation and a snorting bull meting out retribution as if it were Judgement Day made flesh. Aided by incidental sounds and a rousing music track that shifts from melodrama to Flamenco, Berger bypasses our expectations while giving new perspective to the story’s old tropes: stepmom’s “magic mirror” gets a modern interpretation and that poisoned apple leads to something far more heartbreaking than death. But the biggest revelation of all is Berger’s reinvention of the story’s heroic Prince, here shown as a tragic figure less royal yet somehow more noble. A dark and brooding bedtime story for adults which provides counterbalance to Disney’s animated confection. Maribel Verdú is pure ice as the stepmother, Macarena Garcia breaks your heart with a smile as Carmen, and even though he only has a bit part Josep Maria Pou is evil personified as a devilish talent agent.

Stagecoach
(USA 1939) (8): Cited along with Hitchcock’s Lifeboat as having provided a formula for the as-yet-unborn Disaster Film genre, John Ford’s multi-character Western still retains a contemporary feel all these years later. In the Wild West circa 1880s, nine stagecoach passengers—among them a prostitute (Claire Trevor), an outlaw (John Wayne!), a drunken doctor (Thomas Mitchell nabbing an Oscar), and an embezzler—embark on a trip from Arizona to New Mexico despite warnings of native unrest and a US Cavalry too busy to provide much protection. As their journey progresses from one stopover to another they will not only have to face growing tensions within the coach, but the constant threat of savage Indians without (relax people, it was 1939). Cinematographer Gerard Carbonara utilizes the magnificent scenery of Utah’s Monument Valley to full effect with endless skies framing buttes and arid desolation which dwarf man and beast alike while Dudley Nichols’ screenplay (based on a novel by Ernest Haycox) grows more complex as the harried passengers begin to succumb to cramped quarters and personal animosities. Prostitute and outlaw exchange erotically charged glances, alcoholic doctor proves he’s not beyond redemption, and a prim but frail housewife (Louise Platt) receives mixed messages from an oily card shark (John Carradine) before giving the film its biggest surprise of all. Unusual for the time, Ford also employed members of the Navajo nation as extras and technicians including local chief John Big Tree in the uncredited role of an Indian scout. And finally, as internal frictions and external hazards come to a head, Ford treats his audience to an audacious—and physically dangerous—chase sequence, guns blazing, that stands shoulder to shoulder with the chariot race from Ben Hur filmed 20 years later. It’s a technical marvel if one can overlook the horses that were injured as a result of trip wires meant to make them tumble on cue. Understandably dated in its B&W depiction of cowboys & Indians, Ford’s ability to take nine separate strands and weave them into a cohesive narrative, especially within the confines of a rickety carriage, was nevertheless ahead of its time. Comical character actor Andy Devine co-stars as the stagecoach’s reluctant driver and Donald Meek lives up to his name as a brow-beaten salesman.

Ashes and Diamonds
(Poland 1958) (7): During the German occupation of WWII Polish forces loyal to Russia allied with their counterparts in the Polish Resistance in order to fight the Nazis. But with the end of the war and subsequent fall of the Third Reich their common enemy disappeared overnight leaving in its wake a leadership vacuum which both sides were determined to fill. Hovering somewhere between tragedy and bitter satire, Andrzej Wajda’s unsettling film spans the first 48 hours following the German retreat in May of 1945. A new Communist representative from Moscow is en route to Warsaw and a band of former Resistance fighters is determined to stop him thereby sending a clear message to the Kremlin—but they wind up killing the wrong people instead thus setting in motion a long night of recriminations, soul-searching, and personal catastrophe. Wajda distills both sides down to two people: the party secretary himself, a soft-spoken older man who has seen his share of politicking; and the young guerrilla sent to kill him whose sense of duty is now at odds with his increasingly troubled conscience (played by the striking Zbigniew Cybulski once touted as Poland’s answer to James Dean). Obviously influenced by the earlier works of Orson Welles, Wajda proves a master at intricately staged interior shots where lofty ceilings dwarf the people below and light bursts through doorways like a runaway locomotive, this juxtaposition of light and shadow establishing a common theme throughout. Although his protagonists are on opposite sides of the political divide Wajda is quick to point out the ties that bind—the upstanding secretary’s estranged son is definitely not a chip off the old block; the would-be killer’s infatuation with a local barmaid offers a peace he cannot accept—and it is this sense of moral ambiguity which provides the film with its most startling visuals. A victim collapses into the arms of his assassin as a garish display of fireworks lights up the sky; a debate on right and wrong unfolds in the bombed ruins of a church where a blasted figure of Christ slowly swings upside-down; and a dying man twitches unnoticed in the middle of a fetid garbage dump. But Wajda casts his net even wider to produce one of European cinema’s more caustic passages when a drunken banquet featuring disheveled loyalists, rebels, and fair weather politicians turns into a stumbling waltz of sorts after the orchestra begins a screeching off-key Polonaise. Blind loyalty cuts both ways, idealism sours, and Poland’s post-war rebirth—as observed by one director at least—ends up being a complicated and painful delivery.

The Devil’s Doorway
(Ireland 2018) (6): When a statue of the Virgin Mary reportedly begins shedding tears of blood, a cynical old priest and impressionable seminarian are sent to investigate the potential miracle. But when they arrive at the dreary Catholic-run home for “fallen women” where the statue is housed—camera and tape recorder in tow—they run into an even greater mystery, one whose roots appear more diabolical than divine. Something unspeakable has been happening at this institution, something that goes back decades, and the current Mother Superior—an embittered old shrew of a woman—is not about to cooperate with the priests’ investigation. And then they visit the basement… Borrowing excessively from films like The Exorcist, Blair Witch, and As Above So Below, Aislinn Clarke’s “found footage” shocker, set in 1960, treads over terrain now grown overly familiar to horror aficionados everywhere, and he offers no new twists to keep things fresh. Furthermore the spooky sound effects and requisite jump scares featuring aggressive nuns and ghostly urchins fail to deliver more than a momentary shudder—mind you a midnight trek through an underground maze filmed in shaky Super8 does ratchet up the creep factor especially when the camera light starts flickering on and off. But in the final analysis, as a straight-up supernatural chiller Clarke’s film is only mildly engaging yet there is enough meat to his script to allow for a few interpretations. Taken as the story of one man’s crisis of faith brought on by a lifetime spent witnessing manmade evil (the old priest’s weariness jars with the younger one’s childlike belief) the movie becomes a spiritual metaphor with allusions to Dante’s Inferno. And when viewed as an indictment against the shoddy way in which the Catholic church has failed women and children over the years (Mother Superior has more than a few bones to pick with Rome), the film’s horror trappings suddenly take on a tragic tone. Considering the impoverished workhouse in which the film unfolds—a place where unwed mothers and other such undesirables were kept under primitive conditions, their children confiscated—was based on historical fact, the inclusion of demonic influences seems almost superfluous.

Beyond the Darkness
[aka Buio Omega] (Italy 1979) (6): When it comes to trashy exploitation flicks, Joe D’Amato is definitely one of the kings and with this gruesome little nugget he crosses so many lines that they’re not even worth counting. Having inherited a lavish estate from his parents, 22-year old Frank Wyler needn’t worry about money so he pursues his taxidermy hobby instead, hence the legions of little stuffed animals adorning his basement shelves. He is also devoted to his lovely girlfriend—a little too devoted for when she dies from some mysterious illness he realizes he can’t live without her. But what’s a young man to do? Especially a horny young man with an interest in taxidermy? And then there’s Iris the crazy housekeeper who has her own designs on Frank and is not above breastfeeding him like a baby or offering him the occasional handy release. But can a love triangle between two psychopaths and a stuffed corpse ever end well? Trust me, grave robbery is the least of this film’s transgressions as a completely derailed Frank and an equally fried Iris go off on a lark which sees bodies being butchered, guts being ripped out, eyes gouged, and a wee whiff of necrophilia and cannibalism thrown in just to make sure everyone gets a chance to be offended. And, being an Italian giallo, there’s boobs and bush aplenty—both alive and dead. Badly dubbed, badly edited (even the uncut version jumps and skips), and wholly gratuitous, this is one sick cinematic puppy which should amuse fans of the genre while making everyone else feel soiled and contaminated. Video nasty indeed!

The Old Man and the Gun
(USA 2018) (5): Beginning at the age of 13 when he was placed in juvenile detention for stealing a bike, career criminal Forrest Tucker (not the actor!) made a name for himself not only for his daring bank robberies but for no less than sixteen ingenious escapes from custody including sailing away from San Quentin on a boat he fashioned out of odds and ends. In writer/director David Lowery’s gushing tribute, touted as Robert Redford’s swan song, a 74-year old Tucker (82-year old Redford), still on the lam, is joined by a pair of fellow grey-haired bad guys (Danny Glover, Tom Waits) on a spree of gentlemanly bank robberies—he always smiles and never draws his gun—across the midwest, pursued by police detective John Hunt (a mumbling Casey Affleck) who can’t seem to decide whether to arrest the loveable codger or place him on a pedestal. And just to muddy the waters Tucker has also discovered the possibility of love with a no-nonsense Texas widow (Sissy Spacek) whom he has conned into thinking she’s dating a traveling salesman. Staccato editing and ticking sound effects promise a crime thriller that never materializes but is instead undone by long golden Hallmark moments with outlaw and widow staring coyly into one another’s eyes across a diner table or against a setting sun. This is not a biopic but rather an idealized dream of what Forrest Tucker should have been like, tailored specifically to match Redford’s onscreen temperament. Between themselves Redford and Spacek do create a palpable chemistry for both are finely seasoned actors with impressive pedigrees, and in the role of Tucker’s truculent associate, Tom Waits proves yet again he is more than just a raspy voice. But Affleck and Glover just look bored and a supporting cast of detectives, bank tellers, and good ol’ boys are little more than cardboard props. In the end however, the film suffers from too many stretches (a fictitious restroom encounter between cop and robber is just plain stupid as is a penultimate car chase stuck in second gear) and the idea of romanticizing a wrinkled old sociopath into some sort of folk hero—a horseback scene would be more at home in a Clint Eastwood western—is vaguely repugnant.

Cat Ballou
(USA 1965) (6): Columbia Studios takes Roy Chanslor’s novel about a Wild West frontier woman gone rogue and turns it into a corny knee-slapper whose comedic elements have dimmed significantly over the years. After her father is murdered by a hired gun for refusing to sell his ranch to a big development company, prim and proper schoolteacher Catherine Ballou (Jane Fonda, looking lost throughout) vows revenge on the company as well as the townsfolk who supported it. But not knowing one end of a rifle from the other herself, she winds up placing her trust in a sad trio of outlaws which includes a perpetually horny con artist and a veteran gunslinger who can only function if he’s sufficiently liquored up (Lee Marvin snagging his one and only Oscar for Best Actor). The generic frontier sets look good nestled against their Colorado backdrops and the addition of a Greek Chorus in the form of a pair of banjo-plucking minstrels (Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye) who sing directly to the audience adds a touch of Vaudeville—but the story itself is more or less a distillation of every revenge-fuelled oater ever made; the inclusion of whimsical songs, a dash of slapstick, and an unconvincing romantic complication notwithstanding. Only Marvin manages to rise above the general mediocrity with a bit of theatre that combines mumbling outbursts and drunken contortions that come very close to performance art—at one point even his horse seems to share in his hangover as its head droops disconsolately over a pair of crossed hooves. At least his character’s transformation from grizzled alcoholic to polished antihero, filmed with all the solemnity of a papal inauguration, manages to garner a weak smile when his assistant struggles to lace up his corset. It’s a shoot-em-up Western farce with a feminist slant (Ballou finds her inner warrior!) that must have seemed fresh when it premiered. Unfortunately that was almost 60 years and three generations ago.

Mon Oncle
(France 1958) (7): Sporting his signature trench coat, pipe, and chapeau, director Jacques Tati’s good-natured alter ego “Monsieur Hulot” provided moviegoers with some of France’s finest comedy moments playing a bumbling everyman trying to glean some sense out of life. In this Oscar-winning feature Tati, perhaps inspired by Chaplin’s 1936 classic Modern Times, focuses on runaway technology and its effects on one particular household. Content with his little walk-up dollhouse of an apartment and the colourful eccentrics who populate his neighbourhood (the street sweeper who never sweeps, the vegetable vendor who vends from a distance, the lovestruck girl who always seems to be waiting for him) M. Hulot is understandably bemused whenever he visits his sister and brother-in-law in their fully automated, ultra-efficient nightmare of a home. With its sterile, minimalist interiors that cause every footstep to echo like a muffled gunshot; sterile garden of meticulously segregated crushed rocks, and barrage of sterile buttons that control everything from the front gate to the water fountain, Tati mines Hulot’s sensory overload for every ounce of comedy gold he can get—a poorly planned dinner party featuring the gaudily outfitted spinster next door is definitely worth a rewind. And Hulot’s future shock continues when he is offered a job at his brother-in-law’s plastics factory—cue sight gags involving miles of extruded tubing and a set of painted footprints. In fact it is Tati’s gift for visual comedy which proves to be the film’s greatest asset; in one brilliant passage a couple of round windows turn into probing eyeballs when a pair of heads pop up and begin to move in unison. Tati is not exactly a luddite but he does poke gentle fun at those who would let modern marvels do the thinking for them and Adrienne Servantie, playing the sister, is especially good at this. Her depiction of an airhead housewife traipsing about in clickety-clack heels, dust rag in hand, trying to impress every visitor who crosses her mechanized threshold garners more laughs than Hulot himself. Only the children and a pack of playful street dogs seem to share our protagonist’s disinterest in this World of Tomorrow—the former pulling merciless pranks on their elders, the latter content to merely root through garbage and pee on the occasional street sign. A playful spin on a Frankenstein theme only in this case technology doesn’t exactly run amok, it just sort of rolls over and short circuits.

BPM
[aka 120 Beats Per Minute] (France 2017) (8): Set in France during the height of the AIDS epidemic, Robin Campillo’s confrontational film focuses on the ragtag members of “Act Up Paris”. Composed mainly of angry militant queers—many of whom were already suffering from the effects of HIV and the few available toxic drugs meant to control it—Act Up took their collective desperation with the status quo and turned it into acts of civil (and not so civil) disobedience aimed squarely at government complacency, corporate politics, and an official reluctance at all levels to disseminate life-saving information. Frank and unapologetic, Campillo’s camera never flinches whether it’s recording a furious rant at a pharmaceutical rep or an intimate night of transgressive sex, for under his direction both come to represent acts of defiance. Nor does he glorify his subjects—their in-fighting proves tedious, some of their public stunts childish—yet there is a fierce dignity to every frame as he portrays these social pariahs literally fighting for their lives…for as long as AIDS was only seen affecting “fags, hookers, and druggies” no one else seemed to care. There is also a love story (perhaps to balance the overt politics?) between two members, one HIV-negative and the other positive, with the latter’s deteriorating health—shown in heartbreaking detail—giving a human face to the cardboard slogans. Filmed in an almost verité style, Campillo manages to smooth out the film’s aggressive tone with moments of pure arthouse: filmed from above, a candlelight protest moves like a singular organism; a disco’s strobe light picks out faces contorted by passion or pain, and dust motes floating above a dance floor morph into T-cells waging a losing battle against viral invaders. With a script that occasionally gets lost in its eagerness to educate (even a running time of almost 150 minutes is not enough to do justice to the complexities of that era) and the aforementioned romance which at times seems more frosting than integral, BPM nevertheless provides us with a fiery moment of silence, however imperfect, in memory of a most unjust chapter in our history. Having lost my own partner to AIDS in 1992, its message rang loud and clear.

Heavy Trip
(Finland 2018) (7): It’s tough being a black leather goth in small town Finland and no one knows that better than 20-something Turo whose long hair and emo looks are a constant target for harassment. In fact the only thing that gives him any pleasure is jamming out cover songs with the Death Metal garage band he’s formed with his three best friends: bassist Pasi who remembers every song he’s ever heard; guitarist Lotvonen who spits out killer riffs; and drummer Jyrki who has a habit of occasionally dying. But when a Norwegian concert promoter visits their village the band, now proudly calling themselves “Impaled Rektum”, start dreaming of performing their first live gig before a real audience. Their imagined road to fame will be fraught with obstacles however, including terrorism, grave robbery, trigger-happy Norwegian border agents, and Turo’s rather messy reaction to stage fright. Plus, the promoter never actually promised them a spot on stage… Combining the satirical elements of Spinal Tap with the spontaneity of a road movie, this Heavy Metal comedy from the arctic circle is a very funny mash of low-brow humour and slapstick perfectly matched by it’s quartet of guileless leads whose menacing appearance (Pasi has a penchant for theatrical greasepaint and spiked sleeves) fail to hide the fact they are essentially overgrown boys with a dream. The music—promoted as “Symphonic Post-Apocalyptic Reindeer-Grinding Christ-Abusing Extreme War Pagan Fennoscandian Metal” (gulp)—is pretty hardcore and the comedic elements, including the aforementioned brush with “terrorism” (LOL!), are delivered with a deadpan smirk reminiscent of Kaurismäki at his most droll. And if it all begins to run out of steam towards the end, the momentum gained in the first half still manages to push it past the finish line with a flourish. “We’re on a mission from Satan” declares Pasi to a belligerent Norwegian officer as if that were the only explanation she needed to explain the band’s slightly destructive entry into her country, and if the Prince of Darkness were real one could imagine him snickering out loud.

Boys
(Netherlands 2014) (5): There’s no doubt that Mischa Kamp’s heart was in the right place when he directed this gay highschool love story, certainly words like “sweet” and “tender” could be used when describing it. Unfortunately, “derivative”, “cliched”, and “sappy” would be equally appropriate. When a dip in the local pond turns into a first kiss, teen track stars Sieger and Marc become smitten with one another. But whereas Marc is gung ho on becoming boyfriends, Sieger is still very much in the closet, even going so far as to woo ponytailed Jessica for the sake of appearances (really? in 2014?). But on the day of the big championship relay race Sieger will finally be forced to come to terms with his feelings—for better or for worse. Cue violins. With scenes of the two boys bouncing on a trampoline in slow motion while sunbeams assault the camera lens, or stealing a furtive smooch in a moonlit forest under the gaze of two adorable fawns (awwww!) Kamp reaches for the heartstrings but occasionally pokes the gag reflex instead resulting in a paperback romance whose rainbow is too often smothered in corn.

Barcelona
(USA 1994) (7): It’s hard being an American abroad in writer/director Whit Stillman’s oh-so-droll comedy of manners and morals, part of his loose trilogy which also contains Metropolitan (1990) and The Last Days of Disco (1998). Set in Barcelona, 1987, during the waning days of the Cold War, the film centres on neurotic ex-pat WASP Ted (Taylor Nichols giving a Presbyterian version of Woody Allen) working for a Chicago-based marketing agency who is suddenly forced to endure a prolonged visit from his boorish cousin Fred (Chris Eigeman), an American naval officer working on behalf of NATO. Seemingly opposites in every way—uptight Ted aspires to a moral code which precludes dating “attractive” women; Fred is a shallow, opportunistic lout who’ll bed anyone and just as quickly forget their name—the two men will spend a most revealing few days together dredging up the past while discussing love & sex, politics & diplomacy, and freedom vs commitment even though neither appears to have a clue about any of them. And while they wrangle over the finer points of everything from shaving to American foreign policy (comparisons between the USA and a colony of ants are as confusing as they are amusing) their Spanish contemporaries offer a few pithy—and not entirely on base—observations of their own. Set against a backdrop of anti-US sentiment where graffiti urges “Yankee dears go home” and bombs seem to go off like clockwork, Stillman is not so concerned with the sociopolitical machinations behind the resentment as he is with the cultural misunderstandings which provoke it. And there are misunderstandings galore in this high-brow, dialogue-driven satire that makes 1963’s The Ugly American look crass by comparison. It’s not easy to take an intentionally vacuous script and have it convey something more profound but in his own sly way Stillman manages to do just that, leading us down the garden path laughing all the way.

A Day in the Country
(France 1946) (8): Begun in 1936 and never finished due to WWII and director Jean Renoir’s immigration to America, this proposed feature length film was eventually released as a 40-minute short. The fact that it’s still counted among his greatest works bears testimony to Renoir’s artistry. In the summer of 1865 a Parisian shopkeeper takes his family—wife, aged mother-in-law, and grown daughter Henriette—on a jaunt into the countryside where they wind up at a rustic inn for a picnic and a bit of fishing. While the family frolics among the cherry trees and wildflowers a pair of roguish locals become smitten with the effervescent Henriette and vie for her attention—while simultaneously slathering her giggly mother with a few risqué compliments. And as clouds gather overhead an innocent flirtation will lead to something much more…and much less. Aided by future director Luchino Visconti and celebrated French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, Renoir is able to capture the essence of a carefree summer’s day where sunlight filters through trembling leaves and an old woman naps with a kitten curled in her lap as if both were posing for a portrait. With the weather thus tied directly to mood, the director goes from sunbeams to raindrops, and from animated banter to a silent boat ride whose leisurely trek across a swirling stream carries overtones both erotic and wistful. A triumph of minimalist storytelling which left me yearning for the feature film that never was.

The List of Adrian Messenger
(USA 1963) (6): Despite the presence of big name stars, John Huston’s elaborate whodunnit somehow seems less than the sum of its parts. British police inspector Anthony Gethryn (an uncharacteristically mild George C. Scott) begins to suspect foul play is afoot when he receives a list containing the names of eleven men who apparently have nothing in common except for one thing—they’ve all died under very mysterious circumstances within the last couple of years, including the nobleman who gave him the list in the first place. Aided by a wartime friend, a former member of the French Resistance, Gethryn’s search for a motive will lead him from a stately country manor to a seedy dockside dive in pursuit of a ruthless killer who also proves to be a master of disguises. Despite the ho-hum performances and a serpentine plot that becomes progressively more unlikely, this is still an interesting puzzle box of a film shored up by B&W cinematography that takes in genteel countrysides (partially filmed at Huston’s Irish estate) and the privileged classes which inhabit them as well as a host of heavily made up red herrings. It’s the latter which the studio used as a clever marketing ploy—for although its movie posters promised Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, and Burt Lancaster, the actors themselves were hidden under so much make-up and prosthetics that they were unrecognizable until a cheeky little reveal during the final credits. Unfortunately there remains some doubt as to how much of their onscreen time was actually clocked in by proxies. Yet another Hollywood mystery!

House of the Sleeping Beauties
(Germany 2006) (4): Lust and Death are two edges of the same sad sword in Vadim Glowna’s meandering arthouse mess of a film which tries to convince audiences that they are watching something far more profound. Aging businessman Edmond (Glowna himself) is still mourning the sudden deaths of his wife and only child fifteen years earlier. Convinced that his remaining years will bring nothing but more debilitation and despair he seeks solace at a most unusual brothel where old men pay premium prices to cuddle and caress heavily sedated young women. Lolling peacefully in their baroque bedchambers, the women remain oblivious to the wrinkled ministrations of their clientele including Edmond whose running monologue ruminates on mortality, loneliness, and life’s ultimate futility as his hands glide despondently over the occasional breast and orifice. The sleeping beauties are thus presented as both fleshy temptations and unobtainable objects of one old man’s waning desire. Meanwhile the Madame of the house—a castrating angel if ever there was one—keeps watch over her charges like a malevolent den mother, and when Edmond begins to ask too many pointed questions the true nature of her establishment gradually begins to reveal itself. Glowna certainly sets a mean stage with shrouded furniture standing ghostlike beyond the bedroom doors, erotic murals slowly crumbling into dust, and lightning flashing between musty drapes—is this a bordello or a funeral parlour? And the Divine itself makes a cameo of sorts in the guise of Edmond’s old friend Kogi (Maximilian Schell) a soft-spoke, fatalistic gentleman whose oracular words of advice are underscored by the thunderclouds and bronzed pegasus statue outside his apartment window. “The old have death…the young have love…” sighs Edmond over a mound of sleeping pubic hair, but methinks either would be preferable to sitting through this protracted exercise in lint-gathering.

The General
(USA 1926) (8): Although it wasn’t a box office success upon its initial release, Buster Keaton’s Civil War comedy is now counted among the greatest American films ever made. Loosely based on an actual incident, the premise is very simple: when his beloved locomotive is stolen by yankee spies as part of a sabotage plot, a meek confederate train engineer (Keaton) goes to extraordinary lengths to get it back especially when he discovers they’ve kidnapped his sweetheart. The comedic elements are classic Keaton with hefty doses of deadpan slapstick augmented by eye-popping (and downright dangerous) stunts which he performed himself: from running in front of—and on top of and beside—an actual moving train to hopping over a fire and falling into a river. And his split second choreography makes it all appear so seamless that you can forget he’s using real several ton engine cars as if they were mere props for this was in the days before CGI and green screens. In fact The General boasts the most expensive scene to emerge from the Silent Era—a destructive confrontation between North and South involving a bridge and explosive effects that actually sparked a forest fire. Meticulously directed and fearlessly staged, Keaton’s thrilling railroad caper is still a marvel to watch one hundred years later.

Mon Oncle Antoine
(Canada 1971) (9): Arguably one of the finest Canadian films of all time, writer/director Claude Jutra’s coming-of-age story set firmly in a rural Quebec mining community circa 1940s strikes a perfect balance between gauzy nostalgia and ice cold reality. Raised by his aunt Cécile and uncle Antoine (she runs the general store, he acts as the tiny town’s de facto undertaker), teenaged Benoit has grown up surrounded by lovable characters and plenty of good-natured bickering. In the three days leading up to Christmas all that will change as he faces his own raging puberty (centred on Carmen, his aunt’s other charge) and discovers that the adults he’s always looked up to are in fact flawed human beings. But it will be a dispirited sleigh ride through a snowstorm to help his uncle collect the body of an adolescent not much older than himself which will mark the definitive end of Benoit’s innocence. Jutra—who co-stars as a rakish store clerk—saturates every frame with postcard images of snowbound countrysides and the frosty personalities who inhabit them from the restless father who can’t seem to keep a job for more than a few months to the town lawyer’s classy wife whose corsets fire libidos and idle gossip alike. And then there’s the mine’s owner, a sour-faced Scrooge who rides down main street tossing Christmas trinkets to the children instead of cash to their parents. A spare soundtrack of sad chords adds weight to the film’s many moments of silence and Michel Brault’s cinematography suggests the work of a Francophone Norman Rockwell, drawing the eye to gaudy holiday decorations, frozen snowscapes, and expressive faces alike. Jutra and Brault save their master stroke for the film’s latter half however, where a heart-rending variation of a Nativity scene gives us one of Canadian cinema’s most iconic moments.