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

~ ~ ~ ~

The Future (Chile/Italy 2013) (5): Dead performances and equally lifeless dialogue aside, Alicia Scherson’s adaptation of Robert Bolaño’s novel gets distracted by so many literary and psychological allusions that it ultimately drowns in a puddle of metaphors. After their parents die in a car crash, teenagers Bianca and Tomas find themselves alone in the family condo with only dad’s meagre pension to keep them afloat. Then Tomas brings home a couple of meathead friends from the gym who convince the siblings to take part in a get rich scheme, namely having Bianca pose as a prostitute for faded film star “Maciste” (Rutger Hauer) now a wealthy recluse who never leaves his crumbling baroque mansion and is rumoured to keep his fortune locked up in a wall safe. Blind and mourning his lost laurels, Maciste takes some perverse pleasure in oiling up Bianca’s naked body while Bianca, for her part, begins to have feelings for the sad old man… With influences ranging from The Shining (a tracking highway shot promises horror which never comes) to Last Tango in Paris (fumbling sex countered by angst-ridden dialogue, “What colour is my cum…is it black?” whines Maciste) The Future never quite finds a comfortable groove especially given the oh-so-symbolic red herrings Scherson throws our way. Even at midnight the orphans are bathed in pearly light the colour of a saint’s halo because, according to Tomas, “Accidents release so much energy they alter the universe..” Okay. Maciste made his money playing Hercules in low-budget epics and Bianca likes to cut men’s hair (are we getting confused with Samson & Delilah?). Bianca’s daily walks always seem to take her past Rome’s iconic Cinectitá movie studios as if to remind us that all is artifice—even the Coliseum is reduced to a dirty souvenir ashtray. And finally, touches of magic realism predominate as brother and sister try to find a fresh balance between the clinically optimistic ramblings of the social worker assigned to them (she literally fades in and out of existence) and the carnal id impulses of Tomas’ musclebound buddies (who take turns bedding sister while spinning brother’s moral compass). Three lost souls in search of a berth then, but the zombie-like acting clunks along while the plodding journey itself seems interminable. Doesn’t hold a candle to 2003’s Last Life in the Universe.

The Wife
(UK 2017) (6): “In front of every great woman is a wheedling, incompetent, and wholly despicable man…” seems to be the message emanating throughout Björn Runge’s adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel; a passive-aggressive cliché of a film whose intense performances and pretty winter scenery don’t make it any less trite. Having spent his entire life amassing an impressive body of work, American author Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is finally getting the recognition he deserves when he’s chosen to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. But why is his dutiful wife Joan (Glenn Close) so ambivalent? Why is is grown son David (Max Irons), a fledgling writer himself, so angry? The dark and stormy answers begin to emerge once the family arrives in Stockholm (Glasgow) for the big event dogged by a determined journalist (Christian Slater) who begins asking too many awkward questions. As Joan starts thinking back on their marriage—from its seedy beginning as a teacher-student affair to its current comfortably upper class privilege—a lifetime of resentments and anger begins to bubble up for it isn’t easy living in the shadow of a famous icon especially when one is all too aware of the dirt beneath the carpet… Lacking the necessary onscreen chemistry together, Pryce and Close (who received a Best Actress nomination) do provide fiery albeit one-note performances: while he huffs and puffs and dawdles like a grey-haired peacock she simmers and boils through a series of interminable close-ups obviously meant to garner sympathy from the audience once the improbable twist is revealed. Irons, for his part, simply whines and pouts like a spoiled brat which makes his character all the more insufferable—his inferiority complex ridiculously highlighted when a fellow Nobel laureate introduces his own family of eggheads and PhDs. Once the script finally hits the fan however, complete with much spitting and hissing as husband and wife circle one another like tomcats, the movie hits its biggest pothole. Why does such a strong and independent woman wait forty years to assert herself against the narcissistic lothario she married? The aforementioned scenery is nice to look at though, and the weighty orchestral score can stand on its own merits. But the heavy-handed references to James Joyce (oh that final snowfall!) had me rolling my eyes.

Torch Song
(USA 1953) (6): Joan Crawford hoofs and lip-synchs her way through one of the corniest romantic musicals MGM ever foisted upon an unsuspecting audience, and she does so with such balls that it almost succeeds on pure campiness alone. Almost. She plays aging stage diva Jenny Stewart—“the woman who put the ‘Broad’ in ‘Broadway’…“—a venomous drama queen who’s managed to either intimidate, emasculate, or eradicate anyone who’s ever cared for her (autobiography much, Joan?). Now, on the verge of opening a big one-woman show, her alcoholic rehearsal pianist suddenly calls it quits causing the show’s desperate producer to hire a last minute replacement, dapper army veteran Tye Graham (Michael Wilding). Sparks immediately begin flying between finicky star and virtuous musician who, despite being blinded in the war, is the only man that can see her for the frightened starlet she still is. The rest of the facile script pretty much writes itself. Filmed in eye-gouging Technicolour—nothing compliments anything and everything clashes with Crawford’s self-designed gowns—and tacky Manhattan sets filled with 1950s kitsch (Stewart’s retro high-tech bedroom belongs on The Jetsons) the limp song & dance numbers do little to alleviate the overall sense of a train derailing in slow motion. But with no high points to speak of it’s the movie’s low points which prove to be the most entertaining: Crawford’s emotional bedtime meltdown (complete with blood red lipstick and clown eyebrows); a puzzling rendition of “Two-Faced Woman” with Joan strutting down a painted staircase in blackface; and Crawford and Wilding trying to out-ham each other in a weepy sugar ’n soap ending so blatantly overdone that even Duchess, Graham’s seeing-eye dog, makes herself scarce. Gig Young co-stars as Stewart’s long-suffering paramour and Marjorie Rambeau actually walked away with a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role as Stewart’s manipulative mother. Alas, poor Duchess didn’t even make it into the closing credits.

Welcome to Happiness
(USA 2015) (4): It can’t be easy to create a film that is at once clumsy, affected, and insufferably pretentious, yet with this little slice of the bizarre indie writer/director Oliver Thompson gives it his best shot. Children’s author Woody (Kyle Gallner, mostly forgettable) has a secret: he’s the gatekeeper of a magical doorway in his hallway closet which gives anyone who passes through it the chance to correct past mistakes that may be weighing on their minds. The trouble is it only opens for certain people and Woody, despite being weighed down by a guilty memory of his own, is not one of them. Jealous of the strangers passing through his closet door—among them a suicidal artist and a sexually abused woman—Woody is determined to see what lies on the other side for himself… An interesting premise but Thompson is so preoccupied with showing the audience how audaciously clever his film is that he throws subtlety to the wind in favour of glaring references to serendipity and predestination. The murals adorning Woody’s apartment walls don’t whisper suggestions as much as scream them in your face—is that the Parting of the Red Sea behind his desk? and his landlord is named Moses? OMG!—while the trail of “coincidences” that land people on his doorstep are a tad too contrived to be accepted at face value, even for a fantasy film. Lacking momentum and failing to elicit much curiousity (just like that “Complacent Cat” in one of Woody’s books) Welcome to Happiness settles for a paltry pay-off of “Everything Happens for a Reason” platitudes delivered with much hype and low-budget artiness. Sometimes quirky just doesn’t cut it. Nick Offerman co-stars as the monotone landlord with Keegan-Michael Key as a supernatural talent scout and Six Feet Under’s Frances Conroy as an angelic guidance counsellor.

Embrace of the Serpent
(Colombia 2015) (8): Nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, Ciro Guerra’s doleful requiem on the plight of Amazonia’s indigenous peoples circa 19th century is a heady mix of spiritual parable and bitter history lesson. While exploring the Amazon basin in 1909, German naturalist Theo Grunberg became seriously ill—a situation which forced him to seek help from native shaman Karamakate whose knowledge of herbal medicine was the only thing that could save his life. But the horrors of colonialism had left Karamakate an angry hermit suspicious of anyone with white skin and his decision to help Grunberg find a rare psychedelic herb with quasi-mythical healing properties was fraught with mistrust and misunderstanding. Forty years later, spurred by Grunberg’s fantastical posthumous diaries (and harbouring a hidden agenda of his own), American botanist Evan Schultes traveled to Colombia hoping to rediscover the fabled plant—and in so doing met up with the aging Karamakate who’d become an embittered husk of his former self. Together they set out on a journey which would change them both. Using rich B&W cinematography which turns the rainforest into a waking dream, Guerra’s sad film unfolds in a string of languorous chapters as cameras drift over sinuous riverbeds and steaming treetops recording each man’s journey like they were a pair of solemn pilgrimages. From the slavery of the rubber plantations to the cultural genocide wrought by Christian missionaries, Guerra doesn’t balk at the truth yet he couches the bitterness in scenes of such pastoral beauty that one is never sure where reality gives way to dreamlike allegory. A madman declares himself Christ, a disfigured thrall begs for death, and an arcing fireball heralds a twist of fate as one scientist sees his dream unravel while his counterpart across the years is transformed by a dream he never knew he held. Meanwhile the film’s one constant, Karamakate, as if absorbing the atrocities around him, goes from proud warrior to piteous senior with one last quest to perform. A clash of both cultures and philosophies tinged with narcotic hallucinations (coca leaves figure heavily in native sorcery), Embrace of the Serpent’s gentle plainsong rhythm never quite conceals the poison dart hovering just below its surface.

Clash by Night
(USA 1952) (7): The misogyny may be dated and the pall of angst a little over-baked, but Fritz Lang’s seedy love rectangle practically snaps and pops off the screen thanks to a star cast and a script which apparently never met a noirish cliché it didn’t like. Weary with the world and cynical to the core after her affair with a married politician went south, Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck, outstanding) returns to the little California fishing village she left ten years earlier. Taking up residence with her ill-tempered brother Joe (Keith Andes, ready to punch a hole in anyone or anything) she’s swayed by local fisherman Jerry (Paul Douglas, larger than life) a big lovable bear who adores her. But despite her best efforts to feign domestic bliss, it’s the rakish Earl (a snarly Robert Ryan) who eventually catches her fancy. Very unhappily married and angry at the world because of it, Earl’s deep-seated hatred for the fairer sex speaks to Mae’s own self-loathing in ways Jerry can’t begin to understand. Meanwhile Joe is having problems of his own with headstrong girlfriend Peggy (star performance from a still unknown Marilyn Monroe) whose progressive opinions regarding women have him undecided over whether she should be lectured or strangled. He attempts both. With Earl’s fragile chauvinism and Joe’s open-hearted decency forming opposite poles, Lang takes a somewhat sensationalistic look at how the two women in his film evolve emotionally over the course of a single year—helped in part by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca’s pans of moonlit clouds and thundering waves, and Roy Webb’s plaintive orchestral score. But it’s the dialogue, adapted from Clifford Odets’ stage play, that will leave you either wincing or smiling appreciatively: “Don’t kid me, baby. I know a bottle by the label!” sneers Earl as Mae tries to wrestle from his unwanted embrace. They probably shouldn’t make ‘em like this anymore—but I’m glad they did in 1952. Silvio Minciotti co-stars as Jerry’s father—a man without direction ever since his own true love died—and J. Carrol Naish plays his Uncle Vince, a self-serving serpent who takes comfort in the unhappiness of others.

Sweet Country
(Australia 2017) (7): “The rule of law was the last to arrive…and the first to be broken” stated Aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton on the colonization of Australia. With this in mind his much feted feature film, based on an actual court case, becomes both a tense drama and a sobering history lesson. In the wild west Outback of 1929 an Aboriginal ranch hand shoots and kills a white man before fleeing into the wilderness with his wife. The fact that it was in self-defense and the dead man was cruel and mentally unstable—a side-effect of having served in WWI perhaps—means little to the constable assigned to track him down, a fellow war veteran whose racist worldview is very much limited to Black and White. Using the pursuit and subsequent trial as springboards, Thornton highlights some uncomfortable truths about his country’s beginnings and he does so with all the panache of an early John Ford. The twentieth century hasn’t quite reached the Northern Territory yet leaving his characters suspended in time and allowing him to examine the forces shaping them. Little better than slave labour, the black natives are the subjects of scorn and abuse, often taken from their homeland and forced to acknowledge King and Country—a situation some rebel against while others seem to adapt to as a way of getting ahead in changing times hence one young boy gleefully robs his white overlords while his elder is eager to help them hunt down the fugitive. Their white counterparts, meanwhile, seem torn between maintaining the status quo and quelling a growing sense of shame (one rancher alternately beats and rewards the Aboriginal youth he’s more or less adopted while a white missionary humbly offers them the empty promises of Christianity). With wide open deserts and salt flats serving as backdrops Thornton and his largely native cast and crew inject just a touch of mysticism to the story—oddly placed flashbacks and flash-forwards mimic dreamtime and dusk turns already exotic scenery otherworldly—but bring us back to ice cold reality as the accused is led before an outdoor tribunal in chains, the presiding judge barely able to silence catcalls coming from the vengeful townsfolk. A deceptively straightforward story which uses a tragic flashpoint to highlight cultures in collision yet leaves us with one of Australian cinema’s more inspired shots—a heartbroken man wanders aimlessly into the desert while in the sky above him storm clouds and rainbows vie for dominance.

Fireworks Wednesday
(Iran 2006) (8): Traditionally the Persian New Year is ushered in with a bang as people spend the entire day setting off fireworks. In this solidly made family drama, only his third feature film, writer/director Asghar Farhadi makes excellent use of those pyrotechnics—both visually and auditory—as sparks fill the night sky and onscreen tensions are matched by a background of distant pops and bangs. Blushing bride-to-be Roohi (a luminous Taraneh Alidoosti) is sent by her temp agency to do some light housework for wealthy couple Morteza and his wife Mozhde (Hamid Farokhnezhad and Hediyeh Tehrani, both burning up the screen). But the naïve young woman barely has time to remove her chador before she becomes embroiled in the throes of a disintegrating relationship with accusations of adultery, lying, and possible mental instability being tossed back and forth like hand grenades. On the eve of their departure for a holiday in Dubai, Morteza has convinced herself that Mozhde is having an affair with the woman across the hall. Mozhde, protesting his innocence, feels his wife’s unbalanced fits of tears and scathing recriminations are tearing their marriage apart. Caught in the middle, Roohi is repelled yet oddly fascinated as she’s called upon to be both a spy and an alibi for the warring spouses, a position made even more precarious when neighbourly gossip enters the fray and her weak attempts to intervene—made with the best of intentions—backfire miserably. Filmed almost entirely in the couple’s dishevelled apartment (they may be getting ready to emigrate) Farhadi uses the physical disarray, as well as those incessant firecrackers, to emphasize the psychological turbulence tumbling off the screen. There is a hint of Cassavetes, or possibly Robert Altman, to this ensemble piece with its overlapping dialogue, twists of perspective, and a fidgety camera that seems to prowl as it catalogues every nuance and outrage. Are Mozhde’s suspicions, based on the most circumstantial evidence, correct or is she truly descending into paranoia? Farhadi keeps the answer close to his chest right until the end, but his tight direction and phenomenal cast ensure that this is one bumpy ride worth hanging on for—beginning, as it does, with a sunny interlude in the mountains and ending with a metaphorical jaunt through Hell and beyond.

Who Can Kill a Child?
(aka Island of the Damned ) (Spain 1976) (7): “Man is crazy…” observes a shopkeeper twenty minutes into Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s arresting film, “…and the people who suffer most from his madness are children.” When those roles are reversed however, as in this chilling allegory, the tragic turns into creeping horror. Vacationing Brits Tom and his pregnant wife Evelyn think they’ve found their idyllic getaway on a small island off the southern coast of Spain. But right from the outset they sense wrongness in the air for the tiny town is devoid of any grownups and the myriad youngsters wandering the streets and beaches behave more like skittish pack animals than carefree kids. And then the bodies of the adults begin showing up in hotel rooms, alleyways, and offices forcing the couple to face a terrible reality—those clusters of sweetly smiling children who’ve been trailing them are in fact sadistic murderers who take great delight in offing anyone old enough to vote. Trapped and with no way to contact the mainland, Tom and Evelyn are determined to survive even if it means committing the unspeakable… Loosely based on a Spanish novel and borrowing from such diverse masters as Hitchcock, Polanski, and John Wyndham—stick feathers on the moppets and you have a scene right out of The Birds while Evelyn’s delicate condition gives less successful nods to Rosemary’s Baby and Wyndham’s Cuckoos—Serrador takes what could have been a straight-up thriller and infuses it with sociopolitical overtones thanks to an opening montage of newsreels highlighting the plight of children from Nazi Germany to Viet Nam to war-torn Biafra. It’s Day of the Animals with preteens replacing the indignant wolves and eagles. But whereas the beasts in William Girdler’s cheese bomb were pissed off at man’s environmental havoc, Serrador’s little innocents seem content to merely reflect what we’ve been doing to ourselves all along. And therein lies the real horror.

Incident in a Ghostland
(Canada 2018) (5): When it comes to scary movies some directors prefer to slowly twist the screws one little shock at a time while others like to smack the audience in the face with a frying pan right from the outset. With this clever but sloppy pastiche of fairy tale tropes and Hollywood salutes Pascal Laugier places himself firmly in the latter camp. Pauline and her two teenaged daughters Beth and Vera barely move into the rural house they inherited from a dead aunt—a tumbledown maze of wooden corridors populated by the old woman’s collection of macabre dolls—when they are brutally attacked by a cross-dressing psychopath and her monstrous henchman. Years later Beth continues to be troubled by bad dreams even though she’s now a successful horror author living in Chicago with her husband and son. But Vera, who still lives with mom in that infamous house, has it much worse. Given to violent, often self-destructive fits of paranoia as she relives the trauma she suffered, Vera has never been able to move forward. But when Beth decides to pay mom and sis an impromptu visit she discovers that sometimes the past never truly dies… With a witch and an ogre haunting the girls’ dreams (the evil duo even drive a car filled with candy) and action taking place in a haunted grandmother’s house it’s easy to see where Laugier gleaned much of his inspiration especially given Beth’s overactive imagination and penchant for telling stories—she cites H. P. Lovecraft as her biggest idol. In addition, the director piles on the pop cinema references with a little Amish boy running through a field of corn (get it?!), Vera done up in Baby Jane drag, and a midnight trek right out of Texas Chainsaw. But despite a very interesting—albeit suspect—psychological about-turn that manages to throw reality back in your face, it soon gets buried under a cacophony of screaming bitch slaps and vulgar excesses (Mr. Ogre’s “appetites” make no distinction between little dolls and young women). As with his previous film, Martyrs, Laugier once again subjects a pair of female antagonists to a sadistic round of torture and psychological despair with very little payoff in the end. At least Ghostland doesn’t try to excuse the brutality with some existential sleight-of-hand.

The Young Lions
(USA 1958) (7): A pretty bold move at the time, Edward Dmytryk’s Cinemascope adaptation of Irwin Shaw’s lengthy novel views WWII from both sides of the line as three soldiers—two Americans, one German—are thrown into combat. Conscientious nazi Lt. Christian Diestl (an Aryan-blonde Marlon Brando owning the screen) finds his faith in the fatherland shaken after he begins to glimpse the horrible truth behind Hitler’s fiery rhetoric. Across the Atlantic Broadway playboy Michael Whiteacre (Dean Martin, too old and terribly miscast) is ashamed to discover his pacifist stance turning into cowardice after he’s drafted, and penniless yet idealistic young Jew Noah Ackerman (an addicted Montgomery Clift gaunt and twitchy both on screen and off) finds he doesn’t have to go all the way to Europe to experience anti-semitism. A low-key epic clocking in at 167 minutes, these three threads will eventually find themselves entwined on the battlefield for an ending as predictable as it is unlikely. But it is the journeys themselves which command our attention. Aided by a script free of bombast and Joe MacDonald’s evocative B&W cinematography which skips from Manhattan opulence to muddy trenches, the dogs of war are mostly background noise as the “young lions” of the film evolve (or not) into future veterans with the help of the women in their lives. Barbara Rush plays Martin’s oddly conflicted girlfriend who goads him into proving himself yet doesn’t want him to get shot and Hope Lange is perfectly cast as Ackerman’s new wife, a wholesome WASP who keeps the home fires burning. This is Brando’s film however so his character gets two contrasting women in order to highlight his own inner conflict—the slutty wife of Diestl’s commanding officer (Swedish bombshell May Britt) representing the seductive promises of victory, and a demure yet defiant French nationalist (Liliane Montevecchi) embodying all the things war destroys. Maximillian Schell provides counterpoint as Diestl’s commander and ideological nemesis. Criticized upon its initial release by those who found Brando’s performance too sympathetic, this is the kind of “war movie” that can only come out after the dust has settled.

Night and the City
(UK 1950) (9): Richard Widmark is magnificent in Jules Dassin’s sad noir about a two-bit grifter whose lofty dreams of fame and fortune have turned him into a tragic laughingstock—until a big break promises to catapult him into the spotlight at last. Set in London, penniless Harry Fabian (Widmark) is not above lying, conning, and even stealing from his loving fiancee Mary (Gene Tierney) in order to pursue whatever latest get-rich scheme he’s happened to fall for. But when he sets his sights on becoming a big wrestling promoter his blind obsession to succeed no matter what the cost doles out tragedy for everyone associated with him from Mary to a couple of cross-purposed business partners (Francis Sullivan and Googie Withers playing a married couple who neither love, honour, nor obey). It also puts him at dangerous odds with London’s reigning King of the Ring Kristo (Herbert Lom) who is not about to let some upstart threaten his profit margin—odds that become complicated when Kristo’s father, a former wrestling champion, enters the fray. Betrayals and hidden agendas abound while the swirling fog of a perpetually twilit London, almost a character unto itself, maintains an oppressive atmosphere of gloom and doom. All the elements of Film Noir are here—the razor-sharp shadows, theatrical staging, air of moral indecency—yet the film’s sting lies more in heartbreak than felony as love decays and pipe dreams turn to dust. In Fabian, Widmark provides a searing character study of an impotent Everyman hellbent on overcoming a life defined by poverty who is incapable of seeing the hole he’s constantly digging for himself and, even more frustrating, unable to recognize the single lifeline being offered by the only person who cares about him. Bookended, appropriately enough, by two frantic pursuits—one aimed at escaping destiny, one rushing headlong to embrace it.

Annabelle: Creation
(USA 2017) (7): First the usual glut of disclaimers for this genre of film: of course the storyline is completely ludicrous when you give it more than a cursory thought; of course normal people do not behave this way when they discover they’re in a haunted house; and of course evil never dies, at least until the studio has milked every dollar they can from it. That being said, this prequel to the lucrative Annabelle-slash-Conjuring franchise could very well be the best of the lot. In the midwest circa 1960, six orphan girls and their kindly governess Sr. Charlotte find a new place to stay in the big country home of toymaker Samuel Mullins and his wife Esther. All is not well from the very beginning however for an opening prologue shows how the Mullins lost their little girl Annabelle in a terrible accident twelve years earlier, a death which left Samuel a dour husk of his former self and Esther a bed-bound invalid. But as the days pass and the orphans settle in, peace seems to come to the Mullins home—until little Janice enters a forbidden room and finds a most unusual doll… The Mullins have been harbouring an awful secret and Janice’s small transgression is about to unleash a whole mountain of diabolical headaches. Stylishly filmed with wide pans and close tracking shots as the girls giggle up and down staircases or else stare horrified at a darkened doorway, director David F. Sandberg finds just the right balance of innocent frivolity and demonic foreboding. There are shadows aplenty in the Mullins home, some real some psychological, and Sandberg is not above throwing in a pair of glowing eyes, scraping claws, or that eponymous doll—the ugliest piece of crinoline and porcelain you’re likely to see—which always seems to show up at just the wrong moment. But as effective as the first half of the film is, the second half spirals into haunted house clichés with flickering lights and a little black devil goading the adults into wielding the usual Catholic voodoo with the usual suboptimal results. Good special effects though, and the young actresses work well together. Unfortunately we’ve seen it all before from those very unsubtle sequel tie-ins to the promise of even more to come. Best appreciated if simply viewed as a series of fireside ghost stories…..ooh evil scarecrows and malevolent Barbies!

Queen & Slim
(USA/Canada 2019) (4): Slim, a devout Christian man who always strives to see the good in people, and Queen, a fledgling lawyer who concentrates mainly on the bad, are on their way home after a disastrous first date when Slim’s car is pulled over for a minor driving infraction. The behaviour of the officer, at first just brusque, swiftly escalates into violent antagonism leading to a struggle in which Slim accidentally kills him. Surely a clear-cut case of self-defense—but this is Ohio, the officer was white, and Queen and Slim are black. Convinced they’ll never be believed in court, the two take off on a road trip straight down America’s racial divide with one side lauding them as heroes of the new Civil Rights struggle and the other convinced their racial biases were correct all along. And therein lies the fatal flaw of director Melina Matsoukas’ first foray into motion picture territory. In her eagerness to point a glaring torchlight at institutionalized racism she sacrifices depth and subtlety (and narrative logic) in favour of a series of abject lessons on intolerance. While stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith do spark some onscreen chemistry, each character they encounter becomes little more than a soapbox: there’s Queen’s pimp uncle and his stable of sullen ‘ho’s who present African American empowerment as an impotent charade; the black mechanic who finds comfort in the status quo; the indignant youth who feels imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; a store clerk who practically embodies gun culture; and the white liberal who laments about “the war out there”. And if these cut-outs were not facile enough, Matsoukas piles on the irony with Slim’s faith reflected in the crucifixes which seem to adorn every wall and the two fugitives making sweet love in a graveyard completely unaware that a public protest in their honour is about to turn deadly. And check out Queen’s tiger print dress—growl! But the ultimate insults come in the form of a ridiculous Thelma & Louise style passage and a manipulative montage of weepy eyes and staged defiance. With a plot so resolutely black and white it’s a wonder Matsoukas even bothered to film it in colour.

Whisky Romeo Zulu
(Argentina 2004) (8): In August of 1999 a passenger jet operated by Argentinian airline LAPA crashed shortly after take-off from Bueno Aires killing 67 people including two bystanders on the ground. The investigation which followed uncovered years of shoddy maintenance, poorly trained staff, and collusion between the airline and the Argentinian military who, at that time, also served as air traffic controllers. Real life former LAPA pilot and whistleblower Enrique Piñeyro directs and stars in this damning drama covering the days immediately before and after the crash and his expertise is clearly evident in every frame. Forgoing sound stages and CGI in favour of the real thing, Piñeyro takes his cameras aboard actual passenger planes in flight—with himself at the controls—and the result is as realistic and nerve-wracking as any documentary. For months he predicted a fatal accident was inevitable, even going so far as to send a warning letter to every level of the company, yet despite the growing evidence he was stonewalled—even threatened—by a military bent on maintaining control and LAPA management who were more intent on boosting profits than protecting staff and customers. Jumping seamlessly back and forth through time Piñeyro garners a sense of irony by intercutting scenes of his character’s futile attempts to avoid catastrophe with scenes of the investigation, including sobering voice recorder transcripts recovered from the downed plane’s black box. A childhood love story blossoming (or wilting as it were) into an adult affair seems completely superfluous in an otherwise engrossing tale of tragedy and official cover-ups but Piñeyro’s winning performance, bolstered by his natural charisma and quiet passion, make you believe you are witnessing nothing but the truth. Chilling.

Five Minutes of Heaven
(UK 2009) (9): In 1975, at the height of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, seventeen-year old protestant Alistair Little shot and killed catholic Jimmy Griffin as part of an initiation of sorts into the Ulster Volunteer Force, or UVF, a Loyalist paramilitary group. The murder cost him twelve years in prison. But there was another victim that night, Jimmy’s little brother Joe witnessed the assassination and the experience not only destroyed his childhood but forever fractured the relationship between him and his parents who were never able to get over their grief. Thirty-three years later, as part of a media-sponsored reconciliation initiative, the two men were brought face-to-face for the first time… Headlined by stars Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s wrenching drama recreates not only the murder and its immediate fallout but the explosive encounter between Little and Griffin which was supposed to play out before eager cameras at a posh Irish estate but instead turned into something far more raw and ultimately cathartic. Neeson presents the grown Little as a haunted man whose burden of guilt—and the sobering insight into blind sectarian devotion it fostered—led to a worldwide campaign aimed at encouraging dialogue between warring factions from South Africa to Kosovo. Nesbitt, on the other hand, gives a fierce performance as a man so torn with unresolved pain and rage that he even frightens himself. And Hirschbiegel highlights this difference with cameras that focus steadily on Little while Griffin’s scenes are handheld and chaotic, his reality occasionally lapsing into flashback memories and angry inner monologues. Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca also deserves particular praise for her role as a studio gofer assigned to look after the needs of both men, her cool presence and honest answers providing a crucial link between the two. Finally, a somewhat cynical eye is cast upon the media itself whose eagerness to present “The Truth” too often relies on rehearsed lines and multiple takes. “In most cases, asking for forgiveness is more about the needs of the perpetrator than the needs of the victim…” wrote Alistair Little once, and in Hirschbiegel’s small thunderclap of a film the truth of that simple sentence arrives with the impact of a ricocheting bullet.

Summer Magic
(USA 1963) (6): Disney presents Pollyanna 2.0 with Hayley Mills once again cast as a pathologically optimistic minor spinning rainbows wherever she goes. After the death of her husband, Bostonian socialite Margaret Carey (an elegant Dorothy McGuire) finds herself financially strapped necessitating a move to rural Maine with her three children in tow: Nancy (Mills) all tall tales and blonde curls; ginger-haired Gilly who dreams of being a composer; and wee Peter (future cinematographer James Mathers) decked out in Prince Valiant haircut and Buster Brown threads. Setting up in a humble rented house, the Careys gradually smile and sing their way into the hearts of everyone especially jovial caretaker Osh Popham (a loveable Burl Ives) and his miserable shrew of a wife (Una Merkel). Despite the occasional urge to bitchslap that sugar & spice off everyone’s face—the kids are “precious”, the songs pure saccharine slush—Disney once again manages to produce a palatable family film through single-minded determination. Set during the ragtime era of a century ago, director James Neilson envisions a small town America where charming cottages sit like iced cakes and happy white people parade about on bicycles or jaunty jalopies which honk and sputter and scare the horses—the kind of town where both Mary Poppins AND the Stepford wives would feel right at home. But for all its treacle and happy endings that old Disney magic remains strong. From the candy-coated cinematography to Hayley Mills’ winning performance as a teenager who cannot see the clouds for the silver linings, Summer Magic does manage to capture something of the hope and innocence we once wished were commonplace. Deborah Walley co-stars as uppity cousin Julia, the bane of the Carey kids whose tiresome vanity hides a broken heart which eventually succumbs to Nancy’s indomitable good cheer.

Love, Gilda
(Canada 2018) (8): Told mainly in her own words—and often in her own voice—thanks to TV spots and home movies, diary entries, and snippets from her posthumous autobiography, this endearing documentary on the life of comedienne Gilda Radner is nothing if not a work of love by director Lisa D’Apolito. Starting with her childhood years as a chubby little Jewish kid growing up in Detroit, then moving on to her early stage experiences with Toronto’s Second City troupe and finally her now legendary presence as part of the original cast on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Radner’s life was a study in both the rewards which come with fame and the personal costs that accompany it. But despite a string of failed relationships, an eating disorder, and struggles with self-esteem and intimacy—and then that final showdown with cancer—one glimpses a fragile yet adamant spirit behind the giggles, for here was a woman determined to laugh at whatever life threw at her and hell-bent on making us join in. SNL alumni such as Chevy Chase and Lorne Michaels join Gilda’s friends and family—including the late Gene Wilder, perhaps her greatest love—in exposing Radner for the warm, complicated, and terribly talented person she was. And, just to keep things balanced, they are in turn joined by cameos from Gilda’s beloved personas like the clueless Emily Litella, nerdy Lisa Loopner, and ever popular Roseanne Roseannadanna whose vulgar observations on life most closely represented Radner’s own earthy sense of humour. “Because I am not a perfect example of my gender…” she once wrote, “…I decided to be funny about what I didn’t have instead of worrying about it.” And the world, if only for a brief moment, was just a little bit better because of that.

A Hologram for the King
(UK 2016) (6): Still smarting from a host of bad business decisions he made in the past and presently entrenched in one helluva mid-life rut, hard-pressed tech salesman Alan Clay (Tom Hanks, unremarkable) has one more shot at redemption when his company sends him to Saudi Arabia to promote a revolutionary new teleconferencing device to the king. Upon arrival, however, nothing goes as planned—neither professionally nor personally—giving rise to all manner of existential crises. To understand just where Tom Tykwer’s screen adaptation of Dave Eggers’ novel goes awry you have to pin down exactly what it is you’re watching. As a culture clash comedy it relies too heavily on Western perceptions of what constitutes Saudi society, from smarmy businessmen and distrustful locals to the inevitable snarling camel, to carry much weight. As a romance it seems too tacked together as Clay, a recent divorcee himself, suddenly meets a kindred spirit (Sarita Choudhury) whose chaste text messages lead to the promise of something more. Huh? As a whimsical evocation of one man’s mid-life crisis Tykwer’s odd flights of fancy—including Hanks belting out “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads as his entire life goes up in a puff of purple smoke—do manage to underscore the onscreen drama as Alan suffers through a series of setbacks, indignities and a medical scare or two. Sometimes a barren desert is not just a barren desert. Perhaps it works best as a metaphorical road movie between Clay and his gregarious ad hoc driver Yousef (Omar Elba’s insouciant performance providing one of the film’s few saving graces). Perpetually disheveled and exhibiting a pleasantly skewed take on life, Yousef’s casual banter with his uptight passenger, usually while American rock anthems blare from the car speakers, offer some consistency to a film which is otherwise a jumble of styles and motives. A few outdoor shots of Riyadh blend seamlessly, at least to our eyes, with lush Moroccan locations and add a fairy tale touch to a film too often bogged down in personal angst and clumsy sociopolitical critiques—oh those evil Chinese competitors.

(USA 1989) (7): Although born into southern California’s privileged über-wealthy, teenaged Bill Whitney still can’t help feeling like an outcast. Mom and dad are preoccupied with his sister Jenny (too preoccupied) especially now that her gala “Coming Out” party is approaching, and all their interactions appear calculated and superficial—qualities mirrored in the circle of fantastically rich judges, business tycoons, and politicians that surround them. Bill’s unease is not entirely unfounded however for every now and then he witnesses something he shouldn’t (was that a pulsating blob on Jenny’s back? did mom just eat a garden slug?) prompting him to seek help from a psychiatrist who may or may not believe him. But when people start disappearing—people who share Bill’s misgivings—his suspicions turn to flat out panic as the true nature of High Society reveals itself… Set among greater L.A.’s pampered palaces and impeccably trimmed lawns where women flutter about like taffeta butterflies and tuxedoed men puff on oversized cigars, Brian Yuzna’s corrosive satire on class identity plays off a script that could have been co-written by H. P. Lovecraft and Luis Buñuel had they shared a joint before getting down to business. Yuzna’s bourgeoisie may not be as discreet as Buñuel’s but his determination to lampoon them as being a breed apart (quite literally) does give rise to some gleefully grotesque special effects including an elite soiree which turns into a throbbing gelatinous orgy straight out of Salvador Dali’s best wet dream. Yet, if the satirical elements press the message of social inequality with a bit too much force, the film’s greatest strength ultimately rests in the director’s ability to make us feel Bill’s paranoia as the once familiar slowly becomes strange and hostile—not surprising given the fact he lists Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby as one of his inspirations. Looking upon the proles which surround them as a barracuda might observe a school of tasty anchovies, Society’s rich are filthy indeed—a tired old truism that Yuzna manages to twist into a macabre parody of itself.